A special place

The following is an extract from Henry Hitchings’ introduction to Browse: The World in Bookshops*, a collection of essays by 15 bestselling international authors, investigating the myriad pleasures, puzzles and possibilities of bookshops around the globe:

A bookshop can be a magnet for mavericks and nomads. A community hub, a haven, a platform for cultural events. A centre of dissent and radicalism. A place to disseminate notions too strange or explosive for mass circulation. A means of creating and nurturing coteries of readers. These ideas surface repeatedly in this volume: I think of Alaa al-Aswany’s image of a bookshop as a muster point for participants in Egypt’s 2011 revolution, and of Andrey Kurkov’s portrait of Bukinist, a nerve centre for the artistic life of Chernivtsi, Ukraine’s so-called Little Vienna.

The [collected] essays celebrate the institution of the bookshop; they argue for its value and extol its charm. At the same time, each essay cherishes a particular bookshop or the bookshop culture of a particular place. There’s Juan Gabriel Vásquez on his two favourite spots in Bogotá, both “places of transformation”; Elif Shafak in Kadikoy enveloped by the smells of coffee and linden; Pankaj Mishra in Delhi, carving out a private space for his imagination; Ian Sansom on London’s Charing Cross Road, unloading new stock at Foyles while the entertainer Danny La Rue descends from his pink Rolls-Royce.

Daniel Kehlmann transports us to Berlin’s Mitte district with its cast of conspiratorial lunchers; Dorthe Nors to rural Jutland and fashionable Copenhagen; and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor to Nairobi, which is undergoing “a delirium of reconstructive surgery”. In some cases the essay is a memorial: Iain Sinclair writes about the defunct Bookmans Halt in St Leonards-on-Sea; Yiyun Li about Beijing’s long-gone Foreign Language Bookshop; and Stefano Benni about the “dark, mysterious cave” that was La Palmaverde in Bologna.

[The book] is not a gazetteer or a guide to the bookshops of the world. Instead it’s an anthology of personal experiences of the book, the most resonant object of the last millennium, and of the special place where readers go to acquire their books—a pharmacy or pharmacopoeia, a miracle of eclecticism, a secret garden, an ideological powder keg, a stage for protest against the banality and glibness of the rest of the world, and also a place of safety and sanity, the only kind of grotto that is also a lighthouse.

Henry Hitchings is an author, reviewer and critic.

*Browse: The World in Bookshops is published by Pushkin Press on 6th October, priced £12.