A former diplomat from Beirut and an arts professional have opened up a French-English bookshop in London’s East End.
Caravansérail is also a gallery and “cultural platform” with a café serving drinks and French pastries minutes away from Brick Lane. The shop will launch officially next month with a raft of cultural and literary events.
Laura Cleary, a former attaché for the French Embassy in Beirut, is opening the shop with her cousin Anne Vegnaduzzo who runs an artists’ agency.
Cleary told The Bookseller how the pair had spent 18 months preparing through research, internships at publishers in France, meetings and events such as attending the London Book Fair. They have poured their life savings into the 70-square metre shop, along with a grant from an agency within the French government, the Centre National du Livre.
Cleary said: “I had the dream of starting with a bookshop. Anne works in the arts, and we decided to combine these things. We wanted it to be somewhere where French and English speakers could meet and share common interests.
“I think we are the only people doing this. We are a bookshop, a gallery and have a cultural programme. We hope to be a space for the community.”
She revealed how they chose the name ‘Caravanserail’ (‘caravansérail’ in French) to promote the theme of “interaction” and exchange between readers. She said: “This was a roadside inn where travellers (‘caravaners’) could rest and recover from the day's journey. Caravanserais supported the flow of commerce, information and people across the network of trade routes along the Silk Road.
“So the main inspiration is that we want to be a place where people can take a break, learn and interact…[and enjoy] interaction between French and English-speaking community and between literature and arts.
“We are inspired by the creations that result from people interacting with difference and have established our Caravansérail to offer hospitality to our neighbourhood and those traveling through it.”
The shop will specialise in French fiction and illustrated books with around 5,000 books altogether. Other sections include English literature translated into French, graphic novels, children’s picture books as well as cookery and wine, with titles from all sections available in both languages.
Cleary, who previously spent five years living in Beiruit, told The Bookseller she hopes the space in Cheshire Street will spark more discussion around books in translation. She said: “I believe there should be more books in translation. One of the biggest differences between here and France is that here there is little translated fiction [research suggests around 5% of fiction sales last year was from books in translation] while in France it is about 50/50.”
She also described other contrasts between the French and UK book trades and believes British publishers may have been quicker to capitalise on the recent resurgence of the physical aspect of the book. She said: “French publishers realise more and more that doing a cover as interesting jacket design to be important to the book. I think that has been happening for some time in the UK. But then sometimes when our customers see our French books, they say how much more elegant they look.”
Cleary and Vegnaduzzo, now both based in north London, also encountered logistical differences between France and Britain’s bookselling approach.
She told The Bookseller: “Here, we found going to a wholesaler at the beginning was very practical [in sourcing stock]. You don’t have this in France, you have accounts with every distributor but we will move towards that in the future to have a closer and more personal relationship with the publishers.”
The pair are currently working in the shop six days a week, Tuesday to Sunday, with plans to take on more staff members in the future.
Caravansérail will officially launch the week commencing 18th September with various events including an event with Lebanese author Charif Majdalani and a discussion on books in translation with indie publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions.
For more information, visit caravanserail.co.uk.