The Impossible Bookshop

Claudio Magris, in his literary travel miscellany L’infinito viaggiare, finds himself in 1996 in Madrid, where he is hugely impressed by the national library and its Museo del Libro, where ancient books and manuscripts are restored “with ultramodern techniques and timeless patience” and where the literary events attract “a public – as is generally the case in Spain – that is the most lively and stimulating in the world and the most gratifying for a writer”.

He is told that during the Spanish Civil War the library was severely damaged and, it seems, temporarily abandoned, but that a fugitive, whether fleeing from the general mayhem or from some specific group of people who wished to capture and kill him, found refuge there and lived among the stacks for several months, venturing out to find food when it was safe before returning to sleep, and wait, in the empty library.

Magris speculates as to what we might deduce from this ‑ at first sight – rather romantic story. Did the fugitive read the books, he wonders, or regard them simply as objects, walls which sheltered him and which could, at a pinch, be taken apart to help him keep warm? For we find in books not just what is in them but what we need from them ‑ or what we need most, as the Trogium pulsatorium (the misleadingly named paper louse) feeds off the molds and other organic matter found in ill-maintained works in cool, damp, and neglected areas of archives and libraries.

A recent contributor to The Irish Times lamented the absence (in his view) of anything approaching “the perfect bookshop” in Ireland, something like the Selexyz in Maastricht, El Ateneo in Buenos Aires or, vieille châtaigne, Shakespeare and Company in Paris, something a little bit rundown, labyrinthine, musty, eccentric, full of writers, poets and bohemians and partially staffed by international artists and hipsters passing through, an enterprise quite chaotic, entirely altruistic and yet somehow, mysteriously, profitable, or at least, one assumes, breaking even ... and, oh yes, it must have coffee, it absolutely must have coffee.

This is all very romantic (to use the most charitable word I can find), but there is another view, which is that the perfect bookshop, or as near as we will get to the perfect bookshop, is the one that has the best stock and the most knowledgeable staff: people who have been around long enough to be familiar not just with every yard of their own shelving but with the contents of the publishers’ catalogues, who know not just what they have (which one hopes is plenty) but also what you might like and what they can get for you. This is not a service that can be provided by any Mexican poet/tattoo artist passing through, no matter how charming.

A vision of what can happen to the beautiful, the perfect bookstore is afforded by the reality of the venerable institution of the Livraria Lello in Porto. This is certainly the most breathtaking “space” I have ever been in that is dedicated to selling books, a neo-Gothic temple of literature, full of wood panelling, swirling staircases, stained glass and carpets in ecclesiastical red. And to judge by its stock it is also a good bookshop or is still trying to be. It must also be one of the most uncomfortable places to spend time for someone who is there to choose and buy books since it is constantly thronged with tourists moving up and down who have no interest whatever in the books it contains; indeed most of them, being young Spaniards, cannot (or perhaps more accurately would not dream of trying to) read them. In desperation, management, with the understandable aim of at least salvaging a few euro out of this pestilence, have removed some of the books from the upstairs room and replaced them with displays of nicely wrapped soaps and toiletries – a present for Mama perhaps? Meanwhile downstairs, at the cash point by the door, a senior member of staff keeps a beady eye on everyone and croaks every few minutes “No fotos!”, to little effect.

Of course books, and bookshops, need any lift they can get and there is nothing wrong with a little atmosphere. But by what understanding of what a bookshop should be can a place (or space) with, say, two hundred titles in its history section which is never done hosting literary events be considered “more perfect” than one with two or three thousand?

Or could it be the case that for some consumers there is something more important than what books contain, something more intangible and yet more vital? What, they seem to ask, does this bookshop I am in say about me? What does my presence connote here among the mouldering stacks, attended by the shades of Joyce and Hemingway, amid the aroma of fine Mocha and surrounded by books “as irresistible as fine patisserie” (sadly I am on a diet)?

Libraries and bookshops, or some of them, will survive if they can find sufficient readers to use them and (in the latter case) buy books and thus help them pay their staff and their rent. It is not much more complex than that. In this difficult and culturally against-the-tide effort the human equivalent of the Trogium pulsatorium, focused not on reading but on self-invention and feeding off the romantic associations of literature and littérateurs, will not greatly help.

The perfect bookshop
Livraria Lello


27/02/13