Why don't we have a perfect bookshop?

Wed, Feb 20, 2013, 00:00

Paris has Shakespeare and Company, San Francisco has City Lights. Ireland, birthplace of so many great writers, deserves their equal

Ireland is best known for its writers, yet do we have a bookshop worthy of that reputation? Think of the glorious Selexyz bookshop in a soaring Gothic church in Maastricht, with shelves stretching up the 800-year-old walls as if they were ivy cladding the marble columns. It’s like a bookshop made in heaven, paper bricks rising towards the spire, with walkways reaching towards the frescoed ceiling – and a coffee shop right on the altar.

Or the El Ateneo bookshop, in an ornate old theatre in Buenos Aires, with its original gilt carvings, painted ceiling and theatre boxes as reading rooms. It stays open all night, fuelled by a cafe on the stage, framed by crimson theatre curtains.

Without a bookshop that encourages lingering, Joyce might never have got Ulysses published. It was at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, that he got to know Sylvia Beach, its owner, who bravely decided to risk publishing his “indecent, unpublishable” manuscript and, in doing so, changed the course of modern literature.

Beach’s shop was a meeting place for Ernest Hemingway, F Scott FitzGerald, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, as well as the inspiration for the current Shakespeare and Company, founded beside Notre Dame by George Whitman. This was a regular haunt of Beckett’s, and still provides a bed for the likes of Dervla Murphy and Jeanette Winterson on their peregrinations and a place to perform for so many Irish writers.

Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company inspired the famous City Lights bookshop in San Francisco, which became a nexus for the next generation of literary innovators – Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski – and continued the struggle for artistic freedom when it published Ginsberg’s poetry and was prosecuted for obscenity.

Its role in the cultural development of the United States was recognised in 2001 when City Lights was declared an official historic landmark for its “significant contribution to major developments in post-World War II literature.”

Which brings us back to Dublin and the sad lack of any such haven to cherish new writing and writers in this Unesco City of Literature. Selexyz, El Ateneo and the rest are not like Eason or Hughes Hughes: each of them is, as City Lights describes itself, a literary meeting place.

Literary haven

It’s what Dublin needs. Not an official, Government-funded institution but a haven for literature lovers that would give writers and readers what Whelan’s gives musicians and music lovers.

The nearest we have to it now is Lilliput Press, a bookshop and publisher in a charming Edwardian house in the gradually gentrifying Dublin district of Stoneybatter. With its hand-painted signs, wooden facade and books arranged in what must once have been the front parlour, it is full of quirky panache – but it’s small and sells only books published by Lilliput.

Recently it has begun to host cultural evenings, including excellent Listen at Lilliput events – platforms for musical and literary artists of all descriptions “to showcase their work in an intimate and sympathetic environment”.

The Gutter Bookshop, in Temple Bar, is another impressive new Dublin store. Its staff recommendations are impeccable, and it has a rare ability to present books in a way that makes them as irresistible as fine patisserie, but it’s a bit bright and clean to encourage lengthy mooching.

Ideally a bookshop needs a certain tattiness, a lived-in, homely quality, with nooks and crannies to get lost in. Great bookshops are like a wardrobe to Narnia, making browsers lose their bearings, as in Charlie Byrne’s, in Galway, or Strand Bookstore, in Manhattan, with its almost 30km of new, used and rare books.

I have fallen through all sorts of disorientating spatial wormholes at Strand, ending up in sections on vintage pulp, etiquette and magic studies – and even in a department devoted to collating personalised libraries, where you can buy or rent books by the foot.

The nearest Dublin came to bookshops of this breed were Greene’s, beside Merrion Square, and the Winding Stair bookshop, beside the Ha’penny Bridge. Greene’s is long gone, and while the renovated Winding Stair has a fine restaurant, its bookshop is limited.

What we need now is a charming old building in a prime location near the Liffey – not a landmark building that needs to be venerated but an overlooked gem. It should be spacious but warren-like, with separate areas for new and old books and unusual genres. It needs to have small spaces for public readings, for book groups and for launches, plus a cafe that at night turns into a wine and Irish tapas bar.

Realising the dream

Of course, no independent bookstore could afford such a space. City Lights and Shakespeare and Company exist only because the buildings were acquired aeons ago. The only way this dream can be made real is if the building is provided free, or at a peppercorn rent by the State or an ecclesiastical body. The church has always been the great patron of literature in Ireland: without it we would have no illustrated manuscripts, including Trinity College Dublin’s Book of Kells cash cow.

With the right property in relatively sound condition and an ideal location, the rest is easily achievable. The shop would have a small core staff supported by a revolving team of aspiring writers and book lovers who were visiting the city and, in return for their help, would be allowed to sleep among the book stacks at night, like the Tumbleweeds at Shakespeare and Company, who get a bed during their stay in Paris in return for helping out for a few hours each day and overseeing the evening events before locking up, at 11pm. Their presence in the building, reading or writing their own masterpieces, brings life to the building and adds security.

It might take a year or so for this chaotic, idiosyncratic home of impassioned bibliophiles to develop a reputation among travellers and readers. I’d foresee a New York Times feature on it within a year, and some boho Guardian journalist would probably be sleeping on the floor before the doors even opened.

Soon there would be no difficulty attracting the best of writers to give intimate readings each evening. They would not be paid – which might encourage the writers to try to make their readings interesting for a change, to attract buyers, rather than to follow the convention that distinguished writers must imply in their manner of reading that the task is beneath them.

Suddenly tourists would have something to do each night that didn’t involve alcohol.

After the first year the shop could launch a literary competition and perhaps invite one of the main literary journals – the Dublin Review, the Stinging Fly or Irish Pages – to share its premises. Once it has settled into itself it could start a boutique imprint, publishing a choice selection of titles it believed passionately in.

It would then be only a matter of time before the next Joyce or Beckett shuffled through its doors and the little bookshop-cum-publisher took a deep breath before daring to publish his or her brilliant but dangerous work. The rest is the history of the future, waiting to be written.

The one final question is who will be the brave, crazy, selfless, inspirational person who’ll lead this Utopia? All I can say is that this vision was first described to me by Lisa Hannigan, days after she herself had sung her heart out at a tiny gig at Shakespeare and Company. Lisa, it’s up to you now.

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