Why don't we have a perfect bookshop?
James Joyce with Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier at the original Shakespeare and Company in 1938. photographs: luis davilla/cover/ getty, gisele freund/time life/ getty and matt kavanagh
El Ateneo, in Buenos Aires. photographs: luis davilla/cover/ getty, gisele freund/time life/ getty and matt kavanagh
Owner Bob Johnston at the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin. photographs: luis davilla/cover/ getty, gisele freund/time life/ getty and matt kavanagh
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.
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.