The ancient well

In Martin Latham’s excellent new book The Bookseller’s Tale (Particular Books), the manager of Waterstones Canterbury reminds us that we are all book peddlers, hustlers sprung from a more ancient tradition of storytelling. He writes of 18th- and 19th-century wandering booksellers, selling chapbooks—latter-day paperbacks—up and down the thoroughfairs of London and beyond, providing “comfort books for a troubled world”.

Latham’s is one of a growing number of books about books, from Dear Reader (Picador), my former colleague Cathy Rentzenbrink’s paean to the “comfort and joy of books”, to Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops (Profile), Shaun Bythell’s follow-up to Confessions of a Bookseller. For Rentzenbrink the “well-worn” paths of fictional worlds provide solace in difficult times; Bythell tells us of missing customers during lockdown, “those wretched creatures with whom we’re forced to interact with on a daily basis”, and to whom he owes his living.

These are not lockdown books, but they are timely. We have perhaps never been more aware of the importance of reading, whether as a comfort or for some other reason, and never has the opportunity to rummage in bookshops been under greater and constant threat. Equally, we have never had to become better hustlers— whether that is educational publishers hawking their content across the highways and byways of the inter-web, booksellers hand-delivering books to needy customers, or authors taking their book launches online.

We may look at this time as the great catalyst for a change that was coming anyway. For in that respect Covid-19 has been an ultimatum—pivot or die. At The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference, which took place this week online, Nosy Crow senior commissioning editor Tom Bonnick said that at the peak of the lockdown, the company had to ask itself whether it should continue to publish books at a time when bookshops were closed. Thankfully, as Samuel Beckett might have advised, they did go on—albeit with a slight delay. As did others, of course.

But might we also marvel at our own stubborn indefatigability? From those publicists who took to the web in their droves in the early days of the lockdown, to wrap their virtual arms around those books and authors whose publication plans were scuppered; to the booksellers who waited impatiently for weeks and weeks as Amazon took their business, and yet will have reopened with a smile.

We are a long way off being out of this, but whether you draw inspiration from Bythell’s Proustian remembrance of customers past (and hopefully present), or Rentzenbrink’s retreat from the “bite of real life”, it is worth recalling that we have been here before. As Latham writes, his prototype booksellers had an “unwritten role” in both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, as well as upheavals since. As we emerge from this crisis in different ways and at different speeds, this shared legacy is important: it is not just that we keep on keeping on, but that we also make a difference.