Word for Word: bookshops– where love stories begin
The idea of the book store as a hang-out for cruising and schmoozing is a staple of popular culture
There are lots of reasons to root for the survival of bricks-and-mortar bookstores, not the least of which is the conviction that Amazon is nasty, brutish and short of any real empathy with literary culture.
More important than tweaking Amazon’s nose, however, is the conviction that bookshops, like libraries, art galleries and theatres, satisfy a fundamental human appetite for culture and community and are therefore worth preserving. Always too, of course, there is the feeling that you meet more interesting people in bookshops.
Unsurprisingly, the notion of bookshops as hang-outs for cruising and schmoozing often crops up in novels and in popular culture in general. In Belinda McKeon’s recent novel Tender the two main characters are standing in “the Irish fiction section of Hodges Figgis, pretending to look at novels but actually watching every move of the guy further down the aisle”. As both fancy the hot stranger the sexual tension is palpable.
This is echoed in a cult 1970s song by Rupert Holmes in which the lovelorn protagonist sings, “You’re browsing through a second-hand bookstore and you see her in non-fiction V through Y.” Here, sadly, the voyeur bottles it, and the object of his affection drifts away before he reaches A through D. In the 1984 movie Falling in Love Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep have better luck, as they initiate their affair in the landmark Rizzoli bookstore (alas now demolished), on Fifth Avenue.
In the bestselling 84 Charing Cross Road, later adapted into a pretty decent movie starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, the bookseller Frank Doel and his customer Helen Hanff share a sweet epistolary romance.
More recently, Richard Curtis’s slushy Notting Hill featured Hugh Grant as an unlikely travel bookseller who gets lucky when Julia Roberts drops in on his lonely planet. Sadly, movie fame did nothing for the original Travel Bookshop, on which the film version was based; it went bust in 2011, a victim of the internet and some terrible acting. Equally cheesy, but nice in a wet-Sunday-afternoon kind of a way, You’ve Got Mail featured Meg Ryan’s indie Shop Around the Corner battling the brutish chain stores of Tom Hanks’s Fox Books.
Actors do seem to love bookshops. Once, in Waterstones in Chicago, we gawped in frozen fascination as Philip Roth and Claire Bloom approached the till toting a mountainous stack of hardbacks; you could tell the marriage was doomed by the icy discussion over title selection.
Unrequited might better describe the bookshop encounter between Paul Durcan and Amanda Brunker portrayed in a poem from his recent collection. Circling Hodges Figgis “like a sheepdog on a recce”, Durcan strains to discover what Brunker is browsing only to find she has popped in for an impromptu signing. Such “breezy, cool arrogance” he purrs admiringly, although you can’t help feeling that signed Durcans would have better pleased the Hodges staff.
But perhaps the weirdest instance of bookshop “romance” occurs in The Fermata, by the US novelist Nicholson Baker, which features a protagonist with the ability to stop time, a knack that allows him to pursue his salacious habit of undressing women in public places undetected. Baker, a regular customer of Waterstones in Boston, set one of the scenes from the novel in the fiction section, and for months thereafter the gender balance in that part of the shop seemed to skew suspiciously male.
But it’s not just readers and writers who find bookshops romantic, for many a bookseller has met their soul mate on the job. Twenty years ago this August I met mine. Reader, I married her.
Bert Wright is curator of the Mountain to Sea dlr Book Festival. He has also worked for Waterstones, Eason and Hughes & Hughes