I have always really enjoyed novels where the main character is bookish; it’s easy to identify with someone who is in love with books and reading. When I was offered the opportunity to review The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell, it wasn’t something I was going to turn down. I knew that it was the official book of Books are my Bag 2014, and it’s something I believe in wholeheartedly: bookshops are important, and a book that celebrates that has my interest immediately.
I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. Jen Campbell has written a book that features the stories of bookshops all over the world. There are the famous bookshops that every book lover knows about, such as Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and The Book Barge, the floating bookshop based in Lichfield. Then there are the shops that I’ve never heard of, but have swiftly made their way onto my list of places I absolutely have to visit. Hay on Wye’s shops and festival are already firmly in my sights at some point in the future, and there’s Wigtown, the National Book Town of Scotland. If I could live anywhere, it would be in a book town.
The book is laid out geographically, with bookshops across all the continents featured. It is fascinating to make the jump from European bookshops, where, for the most part, the right to buy and read books is taken totally for granted, to Africa, where that right is not always guaranteed. Campbell does a great job of showing the importance of bookshops, and of booksellers who are absolutely passionate about ensuring that people have books to read.
The book is interspersed with passages from authors talking about their own memories of bookshops, their personal favourites, and answering the question as to what their own bookshop would look like. Jacqueline Wilson’s would be a second-hand children’s bookshop with a carpet bag (I approve) and a dolls house; Ian Rankin’s would sell vinyl and feature live music, and Tracy Chevalier’s would be in a train station with chocolate hidden round the shop.
We’re also treated to Bookish Facts, such as information on anthropodermic bibliopegy: the art of binding books in human skin. There are also sections called ‘Some Wonderful Things’, and they really are wonderful little titbits of information about books and bookshops.
I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to ask Jen Campbell a few questions about The Bookshop Book.
I love the idea of being a published author and still working in a bookshop – it puts me in mind of someone like Nancy Mitford! Do you think you’ll work in bookshops forever, despite having success with your books?
I hope so! Helping people find books to fall in love with is a wonderful job – I love it. It’s like matchmaking… with words.
I love The Bookshop Book, and I was particularly struck by the contrast in the stories about most European bookshops, with those in other parts of the world, where freedom to simply buy a book is not guaranteed. How important do you think bookshops are in areas where civil liberties are constantly threatened?
Bookshops are souls of local communities and in places where education isn’t taken for granted, books are seen as portals to knowledge and a better future. There are amazing booksellers and librarians who go to great length to make books available for children in these far flung places – there’s The Biblioburro: a library on the back of a donkey in Colombia; in Kenya there’s the Camel Library Service, where camels carry books out to nomadic communities; in Tehran there’s a bookshop in a taxi that specialises in selling dystopian literature to their customers to further show them the horrors of oppressive regimes. These bookshops are vital; they inspire people.
Of all the authors you spoke to, whose fantasy bookshop would you most like to visit?
Cornelia Funke’s – she wants to open a bookshop in the middle of a forest.
What book do you consider your best bookshop buy?
Ooh, now, that’s a tough one (and so much to choose from!). Instead, why don’t I tell you my most recent one? ‘Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange’ – a beautiful new book that’s just come out; the first English translation of lost Arabian fairy tales.
Do you have a favourite bookshop, or is that like asking a mother to choose a favourite child?
Yeah, it’s a pretty cruel question ; ) but one I’ve been getting a lot recently, ha! I love so many places – Fjaerland Book Town in Norway – a collection of bookshops in barns on the largest glacier in mainland Europe; I love El Ateneo in Buenos Aires, which is inside a 1920s tango hall; and I love Librarie Papillon in Mongolia, where they sell books to herders of the Gobi desert. But I also think that Shakespeare in Company in Paris is a prime example of a bookshop that’s doing everything right. It has beds for authors, events almost every night, a ‘Mirror of Love’ where customers can leave messages for each other, and a wishing well, too. Oh, and books! So many books.
It really is a wonderful book, and one that I know I’ll be dipping in and out of in the future. It has definitely fuelled some travel dreams; I want to visit so many new countries just so I can seek out these fabulous shops! Oh, and if I ever get married, I’m doing it in a bookshop, no question.
The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell
First published: 2nd October 2014
Review copy provided by publisher
As The Bookshop Book is a non-fiction title, it counts towards my goal of ten non-fiction books!
Eight down, two to go on number two of 32 Before 32 – read ten non-fiction books.