Camden Arts Centre Bookshop

IMG_2276Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road, London, NW3 6DG

It’s shocking that the  Camden Arts Centre, just off busy Finchley Road, isn’t better known.  Even on a sunny Sunday morning, there were fairly few people wandering round the galleries, the garden, the cafe and the bookshop – just the way I like it.  Camden Arts Centre is a beautiful space with high ceilings, bright white walls and large windows letting in all of the sunshine and none of the noise from the road. It is dedicated to displaying excellent contemporary visual and performing art, but also puts an emphasis on getting the public involved in the arts.  In addition to traditional exhibitions, they run courses and events for all ages and have a resident artist who works at the centre, but also works with students and hosts talks and open days with the public.  It is a small space, with one studio and only a few rooms of dedicated gallery space, but its size shouldn’t fool you; they manage to cram a lot in.

The galleries are on the first floor, and the bookshop and cafe are on the second floor, and out in the backyard is something lovely – a beautiful garden, much larger than you’d expect in central London, where you can sit and relax, read on the grass or drink your tea and sandwiches from the cafe inside.  At the bottom of the garden, just outside the cafe, are little tables where study groups sit and discuss philosophy, and at the top is a green space perfect for lounging with a book or, as on Sunday morning, grabbing a couple of friends for a quick yoga session. It’s a quiet spot, sheltered from the rest of the city, which you would never know was there unless someone very kind let you in on the secret.

Taken from Camden Arts Centre's website.

Taken from Camden Arts Centre’s website.

 

After a morning of strolling through the galleries and having tea in the garden, popping into the bookshop is the perfect way to end your visit.  The bookshop is deceptively small; it’s one long shelf and a table display, so at first I was somewhat unimpressed. But when you get to looking, you realise that what they’ve done is really quite ingenious.  By cramming books in as tightly as possible on only a few surfaces, the Camden Arts Centre bookshop manages to pull off an impressive and far-ranging selection of books on art and culture, all the while keeping the room clean and minimalist and the atmosphere relaxed and manageable.

Although most of the books are serious and philosophical treatises on art for adults, there is also a great and much larger than expected selection of books for children.  A lot of these are focussed on various art forms, as you’d imagine, but there are also more general and mainstream titles.  Whereas upstairs in the Nina Canell sculpture exhibition, there is a sign specifically warning parents of young children to keep a close eye on their spawn, in the bookshop, they are free to roam around and get their hands on as many picture books as they want.  There is a fun and welcoming atmosphere in the bookshop that manages to just about chase away that awkwardness that all but a few afficionados feel in an art bookshop, when looking through sometimes obscure books on a very specific topic.

When it comes to books for adults, Camden Arts Centre’s bookshop is just as fun, IMG_2274just as sincere in extending the invitation to get excited.  There are beautiful coffee-table sized books full of colour illustrations and photographs of art and architecture by world-famous artists like Ai Weiwei (Ai Weiwei Speaks, a book of the artist’s interviews with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist is also in stock) and much more obscure ones, some of whom have been exhibited at the Arts Centre.  The books available cover painting, sculpture, photography and architecture, focussing sometimes on a specific artist, and other times about a movement or a phenomenon.  Many explore the relationship between art and mainstream culture, something that Camden Arts Centre is clearly interested in. If you need proof of this, you need look no further than the many books that aren’t explicitly about art, but are about culture, society and human nature.

On the shelves of this bookshop, you’ll find everything you need to understand, love, hate, critique and embrace the world around you.  You’ll find creative and political manifestos, novels about human nature (as if all novels weren’t), art magazines and the great works of philosophy.  You’ll find Penguin’s Great Ideas series with essays by Lenin, Freud, Nitzsche, Orwell, Wollstonecraft, Proust, Benjamin and dozens of other movers and shakers of human thought.  You’ll find a series of beautiful, white-covered books by Verso Books in their Radical Thinkers series, which include essays by some of the great minds of the

Taken from Camden Arts Centre's website.

Taken from Camden Arts Centre’s website.

nineteenth and twentieth centuries whose artistic or political radicalism changed their respective fields: Said (the man-god responsible for Orientalism), Walter Benjamin (my hero), Baudrillard, Althusser, Lukács, Frederic Jameson, Lefebvre, Theodor Adorno, Bentham, Terry Eagleton, Sartre, Brecht, Derrida and others that I’ve never even heard of but have no doubt are brilliant.  The one that particularly caught my eye was Women, Resistance and Revolution: A History of Women and Revolution in the Modern World by Sheila Rowbotham. I’m a sucker for a good bit of feminist theory and when it’s got a communist edge, I’m sold.  This beautiful book almost parted me with £7.99 – a bit less than the retail price, slightly more than you can buy it for on the Verso website and probably ten times what it costs on Amazon, but then they don’t have a cafe, a garden, two thought-provoking exhibits upstairs or a shred of atmosphere, now do they?

It’s a very serious, high-brow selection of books, but the Camden Arts Centre Bookshop doesn’t feel pretentious for a second, because of its idyllic setting and its prime location between all the parts of the centre toward which all kinds of different people gravitate.  The bookshop and its impressive stock fit perfectly here, where, on a quiet street in North London, they provide a welcome oasis from the everyday, but also encourage you to challenge yourself.  The Camden Arts Centre and its bookshop, like books themselves, strike the perfect balance between glorious escapism and the mind-expanding, consciousness-awakening brilliance of a good adventure.

Keith Fawkes

IMG_2260Keith Fawkes, 3 Flask Walk, London NW3 1HJ

There are little patches of magic everywhere, though it seems they’re always getting harder to find. Yes, somewhere along we decided that what was convenient, clean and simple was better than the messy and impractical, but rather than lamenting this cleaning up of everyday life, I prefer to focus on how it makes us appreciate it all the more when we find things hidden, messy, old or superfluous.

So next time you’re walking along Hampstead High Street (or any high street) and start to resent seeing the same big names no matter where in the country you are, or realise that the reason you can’t find that weird quirky family business any more is that it’s been swallowed up by yet another Top Shop, don’t get upset, just get off the main road.

On Flask Walk, one of the many meandering little back streets that lead you away from the centre of Hampstead Village, individuality particularity, charm and joy are still hiding, waiting for you.  On this little road, locals and tourists alike mill about, popping into the independent florist’s, jeweller’s or antique dealer’s.  At the heart of it is a London legend: Keith Fawkes’ Bookshop.

This small, poky, traditional bookshop, owned and run by a descendent of Guy Fawkes, is a favourite for Hampstead yuppies, couples on their way for a march IMG_2258on the Heath and literature undergraduates looking for cheap copies of everything on the reading list.  It’s a second hand bookshop, yes, but what I love about it is the sense that it’s not there for us.  It’s not an emporium, it’s not a showroom.  Rather, it’s a home for unloved or not-yet loved books. It’s their place, their silent, messy, musty castle, and we’re merely visiting, hoping to fall in love with one and bring it home.

IMG_2252When you duck to step down from Flask Walk and into the shop, the bright light of outside, the bustle of Hamstead Village on a Saturday morning is immediately dimmed and silenced.  It feels a bit like entering a church.  Inside, it’s dim and cold in the winter – it’s probably not properly insulated and besides the door stays open all day to lure passersby in, so there’s no protecting against the chill.  Unlike your local branch of Waterstone’s (or the homepage of The-Website-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named), Keith Fawkes is not tidy, open or easy to navigate.  Firstly, there’s the confusion of the entrance, which is also one of the aisles, the narrow space where browsers squeeze in between two shelves of books, unwilling to let new entries barge past until they’re finished looking at the books they want.  Once you manage to get through to the back of the shop, where the till is hidden under books and magazines on the back table, you realise that there is no big open space to gather, nowhere to stand and chat while you sip your mochafrappacinnochailattecano or whatever it is you people drink.  Almost the whole shop, you see, is a series of narrow rows cut off from each other completely by bookshelves reaching from floor to ceiling.  This arrangement means that, providing you can find one, you can claim a little spot in a corner somewhere, far away from other browsers, and theres not very much anyone can do about it.  it’s the perfect set up for those of us love to burrow.  And because it’s such a closed-off plan, no one will know if you’ve been there for five minutes or fifty.  It’s the perfect place for secrets.  And what secrets there are!  Vintage children’s books, history of the world, poetry, fiction, history, IMG_2257philosophy!  There are new books that look like they’ve never been touched, modern first editions in their own section – some of them signed – tatty of Penguin paperbacks for a pound or less, beautifully preserved old hardcovers and a whole shelf full of beautiful Folio Society editions of books that you never knew you wanted but might not be able to resist. Oh yes, it’s the perfect place for hearing secrets.

But Keith Fawkes is not, admittedly, the perfect place for finding.  Piles of books fill up all the available floor space, making it nearly impossible to fit more than one person in an already-narrow aisle.  Books also have a way of piling up on IMG_2253every other surface so that no one really knows how many layers deep a shelf may be.  They fall down onto the floor and climb up in spiraling towers toward the windows, which they swallow up almost completely in some places, making the shop feel even dimmer.  They also cover each other up, so that the book you’re looking for may well be sitting a foot from your face, but you’d never find it without releasing an avalanche of words sure to crush your toes if you’re not wearing proper footwear.  Who knew bookshop browsing was such an extreme sport?  I don’t believe it’s possible to exaggerate how messy, how crowded, how cramped and unorganised the shop is or how impossible it is to even know what you’re  looking at.  No, Keith Fawkes is not an organised or a sanatised place.

It is, however, a magical one, because it offers possibility, playfulness, discovery and, most importantly, mess. Mess is underrated these days.  I’m a big fan of mess and madness in places like this, partly because there often is method in’t, IMG_2255but mainly because I think it’s good for us, as human beings, to invent that method.  That’s the only thing we can do that the computers can’t.  It’s up to us to look at a dusty pile of yellowing book overflowing off a shelf and not just see a problem to be dealt with, but a treasure trove of potential out of which we can find or make any meaning we want, and know that no other person could have made the exact same meaning.  I’m a big fan of mess because one day in a November past , as a first year English student, I read The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot and didn’t understand it.  I puzzled over it, tried to make sense of it, tried to dissect and organise it and made it my mission to clean up Eliot’s mess, and then realised that the mess was the point.  And on that day in November, a poem changed me for ever and for the better, and I realised that the whole world is a mess, but what’s miraculous is that our minds, our imaginations, help us find connections and meanings in piles of random articles.

At Keith Fawkes, in the fiction section, I saw a faded and scuffed hardcover 1976 edition of Sleep it Off Lady by Jean Rhys, published by Andre Deutsch and with a gorgeous once full- and now faded-colour illustration on the cover by someone called – and I love this – Rosemary Honeybourne.  This collection of stories is not one of Rhys’ more famous works and the cover was so faded that it’s nowhere near as beautiful as it must once have been, but for £3.50 I bought it anyway, because I had a hunch that it was from the same series as a copy of Voyage in the Dark that I had bought over a year earlier at Slightly Foxed Books, on the other side of the city.  I got them home and I was right.  I feel like somehow I’ve reunited them.  I also paid £3 for As a Man Grows Older , the English IMG_2254translation of the much more beautifully-titled Italian novel Senilità by Italo Svevo, which I never would have picked up if I hadn’t read Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno several months ago. Which I never would have done if I hadn’t been skimming Richard Ellman’s biography of James Joyce, who was a kind of mentor to Svevo.  I was only flipping through it I saw it at a friend’s house, returning her copy of Never Let Me Go. These are connections which nothing but the human brain can make.  It doesn’t really make sense that reading a dystopian novel by a Japanese writer a year ago led me to pick up an Italian one in a Hampstead bookshop on a cold Saturday, but I’m glad that it did.  Both books were used and incredibly good value for the condition they’re in.  When I brought them up to the till, a descendent of Britain’s most famous terrorist wrote up the titles and the prices by hand in a yellowing notebook which is probably not nearly as reliable as scanning it, but infinitely more pleasant.

So the next time you’re craving an escape from the imposed order and thoughtless ease of the post-Amazon world (I say post- because the popularity of Keith Fawkes suggests that the resistance is already well underway) wander away from the main road and down the side streets.  These are the places, hidden and quiet, where you can still find mess and chaos and, if you look for it, beauty and truth.

Taschen

IMG_2218Taschen, Rue Lebeau 18, 1000 Brussels, Belgium

If you love art, chances are that you know Taschen.  The German publishers of beautiful and fascinating books on art, architecture, design and photography can be found in libraries, museum shops, and good bookshops the world over.  They publish ‘coffee table’ sized books which are not only full of stunning art and masses of information, but are also wonderful, comforting physical objects in their own right, worth treasuring.

The Brussels shop is in the Sablon district, just off a lovely square that it shares IMG_2225with a beautiful old church, a weekly antiques market and about half a dozen chocolate shops.  Wandering around the shop I saw everything from clothbound editions of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm to The Complete Paintings of Gustav Klimt to the 36 hours series – colourful and creative travel books detailing how to get the most out of 36 hours in locations around the world.  Reflecting the diversity of their subject matter, the books in this shop take many different shapes and sizes.  There are massive five volume guides to the architecture of the twentieth century, small notebooks or pocket-sized books of photography and art books which are coffee-table size but are so expertly and lovingly crafted that they demand far more attention than mere background pieces.  My personal favourite was the Mid-Century Ads: Ads from the Mad Men Era series, with beautiful full-page, full-colour images of adverts from the 1950s and 60s. Just looking around you can tell that Taschen clearly take great pride in their books and make an effort to produce books that will delight all their readers, whether they’re artists looking for inspiration, academics doing research or know-nothings like myself who just like the feel of the thick , fresh pages between their fingers.

The Brussels shop is modern, minimalist and clean; rows of perfectly arranged IMG_2221books fill up the sleek black shelves.  As much as I love disorderly piles and shelves where the alphabet has given up and let anything poke out where it may, there’s something inspiring about a clean wall of uniform books lined up in front of you. It’s a magic, I think, that comes from the knowledge that while they all look so well-behaved, the second you pull one out from the wall it will suck you into an adventure that may well be a lot messier and weirder than the first impression suggested.  There’s also the knowledge, which I always sense when looking at a bookshelf, that every book in the orderly line holds some different secret inside of it.  There’s nothing more exciting to me than a wall of orderly books just waiting for you to pull one out and let it come to life. Fortunately, at Taschen, you don’t even have to take the book home with you to begin; the vibrant illustrations and stunning photographs on these pages come to life all on their own as soon as they’re opened.

FIMG_2222or the books that don’t fit on (or are just too beautiful for) the shelves around the edges, there are big golden blocks dropped all around the middle of the shop.  Books are never piled but always artistically displayed on the top.  There isn’t much inherent logic in the arrangements; 36 Hours in Latin America and the Carribean may well be sandwiched between The Golden Age of DC Comics and The Big Penis Book.  Seriously.  It makes for a unique and very enjoyable browsing experience. Even IMG_2224more books peak out from inside the gold blocks; piles of books lined up perfectly wait in these little nooks, not fussed about being away from the limelight. They’re relaxed about it, because people like me will always be quite happy to hang out on the floor for a bit if it means getting the chance to admire each and every one.  I did leave with dust covering the back of my coat, but I think it was worth it.

The Taschen shop is a great reminder of why we love and need independent bookshops and independent publishers.  Taschen and other publishers like it are the champions not of the faceless masses, but of the passionate weirdos.  They are places where the random, the niche and the IMG_2220obscure are celebrated.  They form communities of readers for the people who need them most; the scholar of Ancient Assyrian sculpture working in isolation in a tiny studio flat, the nature photographer whose family and friends don’t see why she won’t just get a normal job, the weird arty kid in small-town middle America who just wants to know that someone else in the world loves Modigliani this much!  By filling up our museums and galleries and bookshops with their inspiring, life-affirming books, Taschen assures us all that Yes, this is important, and No, you’re not the only one who thinks so.  In this beautiful shop in Brussels and in the countless other places around the world where their books are found, Taschen are succeeding in opening our minds and exciting our curiosity.  And that, I believe, is how you go about making the world a better place.

Filigranes

IMG_2215Filigranes, Avenue des Arts 39-40, 1040 Brussels, Belgium

The entrance to Filigranes, a large bookshop on the Avenue des Arts in Brussels, is decorated like a giant gingerbread house, with snowflakes painted on the windows and beautiful seasonal displays facing the street from warmly-lit windows.  It’s like walking into a fairy tale.

The first room is large and open, with books and book-related products covering every inch of the walls and crowding tables, displays and even bits of the floor.  The shelves wind their way in and out of IMG_2210corners, creating both wide open spaces and smaller, cozier ones  for the more reclusive.  I personally tend to classify myself in the latter category, so I was pleased to find that there is room enough for everyone to have their own space.  As the rows of books carry you from the front of the shop all the way around the room, there are little nooks where you can dip into the quiet philosophy section for a moment, then dip back out into the jolly noises in the rest of the shop.  In the middle of this first room are not one but two cafes, where book-lovers and coffee-lovers alike can stop, relax and enjoy the lively, festive atmosphere of the shop.  Thankfully, the cafe-goers and the bookshelf browsers never step on each other’s toes: there is enough space in this massive shop for everyone to choose between the quiet retreat of a corner surrounded by pages or the bright and bustling cafe scene.  Indeed, looking at the coffee-sippers, half chatting and half admiring their new purchases, I realised that many of them had probably been quietly browsing only moments ago.  Do you know what this means?  You could spend hours in this shop, arriving first thing in the morning and not feeling that you need to leave until closing time, because in this delightful city of books you’ll have food for the mind (novels, philosophy, history, art),  food for the body (oh those eclairs…) and food for the soul (poetry, god damn it) at your disposal.

Yes, it would make quite a good day trip, spending a whole day wandering around the bookshop, peeking into corners and admiring the smooth white spines of French books and only taking a break to refuel.  But the thing about Filigranes is that you might end up staying for hours even when you certainly IMG_2213hadn’t planned to.  The place is a labyrinth (there’s a map of the shop on their website), a seemingly endless progression of more and more rooms, each one seemingly bigger than the last and each one full of wonderful and exciting things.  It’s a book city, a book palace, a book maze and the perfect place to get lost.  Room after room unfolds and the further you get from the entrance, the quieter the rooms become as the more obscure genres find their homes.  Here, in the suburbs of the book city, are the comics and graphic  novels, children’s books in French and other European languages, a small games and toys section (all very tasteful, don’t worry), humanities, and cooking.  The art section is particularly noteworthy, as it’s larger than many and filled with books which tell the stories of talented artists and reproduce timeless paintings, but are also beautiful objects worth treasuring in their own right.  Brussels is full of art, artistic people and really lovely art bookshops, including the Librairie St Hubert, which I’ll write about soon.  From what I’ve seen, Brussels embraces the most high-brow of art forms, but is equalIMG_2212ly devoted to the quirkiness, randomness and playful side of art.  In fact, in the bookshop of the charmingly weird Museum of Musical Instruments I flipped through a book about art deco masterpieces hidden in the architecture of the city.  It’s fitting that Filigranes, one of its best larger bookshops, should have such a good range of titles. There’s also a champagne and caviar bar in the middle of it all.  In case you get thirsty.

And at the very end of the shop, which, as in any good labyrinth, is right next to the beginning, there is a truly impressive and inspiring collection of international books in English, other European languages and I’m sure many others that I was too overwhelmed to notice. It always strikes me as a bit unfair and a bit embarrassing that most bookshops in the UK never have more than a bay of books in other languages – though places IMG_2214like The European Bookshop, Skoob, Book Mongers and The French Bookshop in London are trying to change that.  Although the quality of these international English bookshops is never guaranteed to be any good, at least it’s an attempt at internationalism.  But at Filigranes, you don’t need to worry about the quality of the foreign language section; like every other genre represented, it is top notch, with a thoughtful mix of canonical favourites and the best of what’s out now. Filigranes makes the best possible use of the vast space it has by ensuring that on its shelves there is no genre, no country, no language and no style which is unrepresented.

As we wandered through the shop last week, marvelling at its size and scope every time we turned a corner and found it opening up into a new room, an announcement came over the loudspeakers and a voice invited browsers to stay a little longer than usual for a pre-Christmas do.  Authors were coming in to sign books, red wine was being passed around, live music would be starting imminently and in every way possible, the party was kicking off.  There was dinner to make and a warm cozy flat to get back to, so after spending entirely too long flipping through the magazines, art books, French poetry and novels in English, I pulled myself away.  But walking out into the dark, cold street I took comfort in the thought that all evening, book-lovers, music-lovers and food-lovers would be reading, laughing, eating and, surrounded by beautiful words and favourite characters, enjoying the company of friends.

Tropismes

IMG_2163Tropismes, Galerie des Princes 11, 1000 Brussels, Belgium

Places like the Galerie du Roi, a covered arcade in the centre of Brussels, near the Grand Place, fascinated Walter Benjamin.  Lined with chocolate shops, bookshops and cafes, the Galerie du Roi is akin to the arcades of Paris, those magical places which Benjamin alternatively described as ‘Dream Cities’ and ‘Catacombs.’  At times, he praised them as places which fostered browsing, people-watching, flâneur-ism and observation while at other times they were dens of consumerism and commodity fetishism.  I can’t enter a place like this without thinking of Benjamin and wondering what he would make of it.  Indeed, sometimes when I go into a bookshop, I can’t help but feel a bit of conflict between the commercial aspect of shops (we are, after all, just buying products for consumption) and the intangible quality which creates so much more meaning: the opportunity they provide for us to expand our minds, embrace serendipity and start a journey.

IMG_2165At Tropismes, a large bookshop just off to the side of the Galerie du Roi (on the Galerie des Princes, no less), the balance is struck perfectly.  The beautiful displays in the window and the clean, modern interior create a palace filled of wonderful, attractive things to buy.  But the books on offer are chosen, curated and presented with so much charm, playfulness and intelligence that it’s hard to see them as just numbers in someone’s inventory or products to push before the Christmas rush.  That, I think, is what makes books different from every other thing we buy: they are not just bought, consumed and thrown away.  Instead, we as individuals bring each and every one to life in a different way and create a completely unique relationship with it.  We carry them through our lives (either on our bookshelves or somewhere at the back of our minds) and we don’t just act on them, but let them act on us.  Books are truly magical and Tropismes, which is whimsical and full of hidden possibilities, is a fitting home for them.

Naturally, the majority of the books are in French.  I don’t know why (perhaps someone can enlighten me) but books in French always seem to have quite plain white spines, so a wall full of them looks particularly refined and calming.  Tropismes has an amazing IMG_2164selection of French fiction, philosophy, poetry and history, as well as a mouth-watering cookery section downstairs which represents cuisines from all over the world, but particularly French and Belgian food.  On the ground floor, little nooks just big enough for a few people give the opportunity to get up close and personal with the books even when the shop is busy. In addition to books in French and books translated into French, there is a good collection of English books, which are always oddly reassuring. Tropismes has an admirably international range of novels and you can read where the books come from on the little labels that poke out from the IMG_2172shelves.  Tropismes takes you on a tour of world literature from every continent.  In one picture alone you can see a selection of Arab, Palestinian, Hebrew, Indian, Russian, Slavic, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Czech, Egyptian, Libyan and Iranian literature.  Now, I like to think that I’m quite good at reading books from other parts of the world, but Tropismes puts me (and everyone else I know) to shame.  And yet it never feels intimidating or pretentious because the whole atmosphere of the shop is friendly and inclusive, embracing people from all over the world just as it embraces their books.

When I went in, there was a pleasant level of chatter all throughout the bookshop which made it feel warm and inviting.  The shop is open, with bright lights illuminating what is in fact a beautiful old building.  The sleek and modern mirrors (which reflect the Christmas lights outside) work well against the older decorative features of the building, particularly the ornate columns and the beautiful roof.  The combination makes people feel happy, and that’s all there is to it. IMG_2169One of the things I truly love about bookshops (and people) in England is that they understand the value of peace and quiet and know how to be silent and let a person think, but this happy, community bookshop reminded me of how nice it can be to have a chat as well.  The booksellers were all lovely and (from what I could understand) very well-informed about everything they had in stock as well as about books from all over the world that they didn’t.  On a couple of separate occasions I heard a bookseller talking to a customer about just how they were going to manage to get their hands on that new novel from Burkina-Faso or somewhere equally random.  One thing I noticed is that the booksellers here were quite a lot older than the majority of booksellers in the UK.  Waterstones and London independents tend to be populated with twenty-something English graduates (like yours truly) and IMG_2171struggling playwrights  because there’s some kind of cultural idea that it’s okay to ‘just’ work in a bookshop when you’re twenty-three but by the time you’re forty-five you really ought to have a ‘proper job.’  I may be inferring too much from this, but it seems to suggest that in Brussels, they take their bookselling as seriously as they take their chocolate.  (I’m still smarting a bit from being told off by a chocolate seller for getting too close to the merchandise.)

Down in the basement, in addition to the cookery section, you’ll find books on pretty much everything under the sun.  There’s psychology, music, cinema, IMG_2170sociology, anthropology, science, nature, art and architecture, all of which are arranged impeccably in beautiful displays on the shelves and tables.  Although the basement doesn’t have the same light, airy, open feel as the ground floor, it’s still a place where you could easily spend hours if you had the time.  In fact, I think it would take that long just to get your head around the selection.

IMG_2166Finally, there is a large children’s section up on the first floor, which is a balcony looking down over the rest of the shop.  Here you’ll find children’s books for all ages and all types of children.  What was brilliant about this selection was that they weren’t just French translations of American children’s books, but new and innovative picture books, novels and comics from the country that brought us Tintin.  The graphic novels available all looked excellent, which I suppose is to be expected in a city that has a Comic Strip Museum and an apparent love affair with the genre.  It also seemed to me that a lot of the children’s books were much edgier than their Anglophone equivalents; I saw a lot of books and graphic novels that dealt IMG_2167with adult themes in understandable ways, rather than sheltering children in fairy-tale worlds.  I was particularly happy to see that small Belgian children are being exposed to great literature – there was a A La Recherche du Temps Perdu  comic book, which I now really really want.  I can’t say whether that’s indicative of a difference between the UK and continental Europe, but it is interesting how much you can learn about a culture just by looking at the books their children read, isn’t it?

Which, in a way, brings me back to where I started, with Walter Benjamin (can you tell that I love him?) and his marvelous exclamation: ‘How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” As I examined books at Tropismes, I thought of him sitting in a new flat unpacking his library of books, picking up each one and letting it flood him with memories of the city where it was bought and the stories it carries on and between its pages.  I’m sure that the books I buy in Belgium will serve the same purpose, guarding my memories and my stories until the next time I pick them up again, in whatever city I find myself in.  For now, exploring the world at Tropismes has been adventure enough.

Small Business Saturday

IMG_2154

Today is Small Business Saturday in the UK, where we are all encouraged to pry ourselves away from the computer, stop being so apathetic and support local businesses.  They keep the high street vibrant, they bring a bit of variety to our all-too-generic world and they stick up for us, loyally taking care of their customers and going out of their way to make sure we get exactly what we need. It’s only fair that in the midst of all the Christmas craziness, we stick up for them too.  Naturally, for me, this is an excuse to go shopping for books.

I had Christmas presents to buy for my family and, like every year, opted for books.  At this time of year they’ve learned to expect the small rectangular packages wrapped in newspaper under the tree.  Although none of my brothers read, they get books every year and I’m convinced that each of them has a pile of unread books from me stacked up somewhere that remains untouched.

I popped into Skoob, Judd Books and Persephone Books and bought books for mum, dad and each of my three brothers.  The most expensive (but also the classiest) was £12 from Persephone books, whereas the cheapest was a £3 book of poetry from Skoob. I’ve now tucked bookmarks into each book from the bookshop where I got it, lovingly inscribed the front inside leaf with the date and a personal message and wrapped them up to be posted off.  Hunting around for these books forced me to think really hard about the personality and interests of each member of my family and encouraged me to spend the time it took to get them something unique, something just right for each of them, rather than the first thing that caught my eye online.

As you do your Christmas shopping for your loved ones, remember that books are the gift that never gets old. Buy books for the people you care about and, if you can manage it, do it in a small business where your money will go toward making sure that the dusty basements and cranky booksellers who yield those completely perfect gifts stay exactly where they are.

If you need a bit of help figuring out where your nearest independent bookshop is, have a look at the Matilda Project Map.  If your city is not one of the few represented on the map, send me a comment to let me know which local business you’ll be supporting and where I should go next time I’m in your corner of the world.

Hatchards

IMG_2153Hatchards, 287 Piccadilly, London, W1 9LE

Every time I walk across Waterloo Bridge, or wander through Borough Market or see Christmas lights twinkling in Sloane Square, I can’t help but think how lucky I am to live in London. London, which has bred, housed, welcomed and inspired so many of my favourite writers over the centuries, is a place where daily life is infused with remnants of the past.  So, it is appropriate that in a city where there are so many new, young, vibrant bookshops, there should also be old ones, telling the youngsters to bide their time, teaching them lessons they can’t possibly understand yet and anchoring them in the city’s long and great tradition of sharing stories.

IMG_2152Hatchards, the oldest bookshop in London, has catered to booklovers since 1797. That’s 216 years ago, or, if you’re more literary-minded, the year that Samuel T. Coleridge took opium and wrote Kubla Khan and Pride and Prejudice was still a humble manuscript called First Impressions.  Think about this for a minute. Its shelves have held first editions of every person’s favourite book since 1797.  People stopped in to pick up a copy of Jane Eyre, the new novel by Currer Bell they’d been hearing so much about.  They queued outside to buy Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928 just as they queued outside to buy Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007. And it’s still there today, a grand and imposing facade on Piccadilly that can still draw browsers, literary pilgrims, history buffs and some of the biggest names in contemporary literature through its doors.

When I popped in the other day, it was decked out in Christmas finery, with IMG_2144garlands and boughs of holly draped over every door frame and all the way up the stairs.  The beautiful old staircase that sweeps you up and down five storeys of this old bookshop is at the centre of the shop and one of its loveliest features.  Lovely, thoughtful displays of books pop up now and then on landings, providing company as the throng of tourists thins with each passing floor.  The ground floor, where fiction and bestsellers live, was buzzing with conversation and had a festive feel, but on the upper floors you get a bit more privacy, as you move away from the Top 10s and towards specialist sections like Children’s Books, Cookery, Art, Design, Travel, Fantasy, Crime and even a section on Alcoholic Drinks…oh there’s everything.

What I love most about Hatchards is that it has the charm and history of a little independent but with the stock of the big Waterstones only a few doors away.  IMG_2145Whereas a smaller bookshop might have a carefully curated selection of books in popular genres, Hatchards seems to stock every book in even the most obscure genres.  And yet there’s still a touch of individuality and the sense that there are booksellers floating around labyrinth of rooms who know what they’re talking about and would love to tell you what you should be reading next.  Indeed, they have helpfully suggested a range of ‘Boxing Day Reads’ for us, which I inspected and can assure you would be perfect for a quiet day wearing jammies and sipping hot chocolate.    The other categories on tables in this room are much more thoughtful than your standard ‘Fiction’, IMG_2150‘Non-fiction’ and ‘Bestsellers’; they include ‘Worldly Women’, ‘Transport Yourself’ and ‘Masters of the Craft.’  With these inventive and creative suggestions, Hatchards is playing its part in earning back the customers’ love from impersonal websites and breathing personality, community and that breathless and confidential, ‘Oh! You have to read…’ back into bookselling.

One of my favourite of these sections is ‘A Hard Hobbit to Break,’ where you can IMG_2146find many editions of Tolkien’s novels – the famous and less famous – as well as other books, including Beowulf and the Old Norse Edda.  These personal touches make you feel that you’ve got a very well-read and generous friend looking out for you to make sure that you’ll never be without a good book to read.  And besides, haven’t we all had that experience of loving a book so much that you don’t want it to end?  And then reading everything else the author wrote and anything similar that might let you keep feeling the same feeling?

All of the sections are exceptionally well-stocked, but I particularly enjoyed theIMG_2148 children’s department, which takes up much of the first floor.  Books for children and teens are arranged (by age) all around the first room of the first floor, but picture books for younger children have their own little annex, a room pale blue like a robin’s egg or a baby’s nursery with excellent books that children and adults alike will love.  I knelt down to rifle through the Oliver Jeffers section and read The Heart and the Bottle, one of my favourite Jeffers books which, incidentally, would make a great Christmas present for a kid or a grown-up.

But despite the amazing selection of new books I want to read, I left with an old favourite, A Tale of Two Cities.  My tattered old copy is at my parent’s house but I’m going to need a copy to read very soon.  You see, every year since I was about fourteen or so, I’ve read Dickens at Christmas.  It’s something of a tradition and I figured that the oldest bookshop in London is the perfect place to keep that tradition alive.

IMG_2147A lot of people think I read Dickens because he wrote A Christmas Carol, the story that people say created the English Christmas.  And hence, the American Christmas.  And hence, the modern commoditized, commercialised Christmas.  And maybe it started that way, but in the years since I’ve been keeping this little tradition, it’s grown into something more.  Perhaps the reason that I now associate Dickens with Christmas has something to do with his world view, the way that he sees beyond individual lives and trials and into the heart of the world, of which every king in his castle and every beggar on the street is an integral part.  And though I’ve now IMG_2151read A Tale of Two Cities seven or eight times, I will never get bored of it because for me, it’s a tradition.  Sometimes I think that Dickens’ Sydney Carton had more to do with the formation of my personality than any real person did.  Sydney Carton taught me that all people have the potential to be good, even if they seem nasty sometimes.  He taught me more about generosity, selflessness and sacrifice than I ever learned in a school or a church.  He taught me that the good people in the world will always do the right thing – quietly and with dignity – simply because they know it’s right, without gloating or proclaiming it to the world or expecting glory or fame.

And so, as my personal way of saying thank you to the character and the author IMG_2149and the incredible story that mean so very much to me, I bought a new copy of A Tale of Two Cities at Hatchards.  It’s a bookshop that has seen and held and been part of so many stories that I wanted to add my own little tradition to its history.  When I read it this year, I’ll think of traditions and the importance of keeping old things, even in a world where we’re meant to think of everything as disposable.  Like all of our favourite stories, the places where they’ve lived for centuries may become familiar but they can never be boring. They continue to grow with us, gathering and preserving our most precious memories, which sit, waiting to be remembered and retold.

The French Bookshop

IMG_2142The French Bookshop, 28 Bute Street, London, SW7 3EX

I spent some time yesterday wandering around South Kensington, through the slick wet streets, which were dark already by half past four, a sure sign that winter is upon us. As my umbrella struggled valiantly against the wind and the rain soaked through my boots, I had one of those London moments when you feel like you’re walking through a film set.  The Christmas lights at Harrod’s were already up, twinkling in the cold dusk while tourists and locals alike popped in and out of those lovely boutiques and cafés that fill the area.

Anyone who has been in South Kensington in the last couple of years might have noticed that walking around the museums or sitting in the up-scale coffeehouses, you hear more French than English being spoken.  The area is home to a huge population of French ex-pats as well as the French Institute and French schools, cinemas, cafes and, yes bookshops.  One day I’ll return for Au Fil Des Mots and Librarie La Page, but last night, The French Bookshop stole the show.

IMG_2139Bute Street, just a few minutes away from the tube station (which is seconds away from the wonderful South Kensington Books) is a quiet street that is home to several small independent businesses, the loveliest of which is The French Bookshop, where warm wooden shelves (there’s just something about wooden shelves, isn’t there?) hold an impeccably organised, tidy and straight selection of books from every genre and for every age written in, or translated into, French.  I always love going into other language bookshops because you get a glimpse into another culture, expressed in terms of the different publishers, authors and categories define the reading experiences of another culture.  And being in this bookshop in particular made me want to go to Paris, a city full of beautiful independents in a country which recognises their importance, tries to keep them viable and gives them the love they deserve.

The shop has a large selection of French books, classic and contemporary in many genres, including fiction, history, philosophy, biography and poetry.  ThereIMG_2136 are also children’s books and books for learners of French, so there really is something for every reader at every level of French, which only served to make me feel more guilty about the fact that I’ve neglected my French in the past few years and gone from being quite nearly fluent to awkwardly forgetting the words for things like ‘keys’ or ‘cup.’  So when the booksellers at The French Bookshop started talking to me in French and I could barely string together a sentence, I was rather embarrassed, but if there is any place in the world where hope springs eternal,it’s in a bookshop, where behind every corner another story is about to start and beckons you to come along.  So one of these days, I promised myself, I’ll pick up a book in French (though perhaps I’ll start with a children’s book) and let the adventure begin anew.

But there are many forms that adventure can take!  Of course you can seek out a classic French novel, your essential Zola or Hugo or Proust if you fancy a long haul, but you can also find out about the best in contemporary French literature, which is always refreshing.  Alternatively, there are titles originally written in English (IMG_2138in the top left corner there you’ll see a translation of Joyce Carol Oates) and other languages ranging from Arabic to Swedish, if you felt like re-reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or, Les Hommes qui n’aimaient pas les femmes, a translation that’s quite a bit closer to the (depressing) original Swedish.  And, for those who are more into cold hard facts than escapism, there’s also a better selection of high-quality newspapers and magazines in French than you’re going to find anywhere else in London.  Go on, look, I dare you.

As you enter the shop, there’s a poster on the wall next to the fiction section which I just have to share.  It sets the tone for the rest of the shop and makes any reader, regardless of native language, feel right at home.  It’s Daniel Pennac’s ‘Les Droits du Lecteur’ or ‘Rights of the Reader,’ which are:

IMG_2141

1. The right not to read

2. The right to skip pages

3. The right not to finish a book

4. The right to re-read

5. The right to read whatever you want

6. The right to ‘Bovarysme’ (the error of identifying too much with the book)

7. The right to read wherever you want

8. The right to dip in and out

9. The right to read out loud

10. The right to silence!

I had never seen this before but I just love it, and a friend has told me that Quentin Blake (Roald Dahl’s illustrator, who I had the good fortune to hear speaking at The Hay Festival) has an excellent poster of the rights, which sounds like it would make a perfect Christmas gift for your favourite book-loving child.  And if you can track down a copy in an independent shop, all the better! Just a helpful hint from The Matilda Project!

IMG_2137The French Bookshop offers so many new ideas and opportunities to discover that you may never want to return to boring old English again. If that’s the case you can buy your travel guides and maps of all of France’s regions on the spot and ride off into the sunset with Flaubert under one arm and your pocket map of Paris close to hand.

That very fantasy got me thinking about cultural exchange, and how books are a huge part of the way that different cultures learn about each other, particularly here in England, where Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens are more loved at home and abroad than many living celebrities.  I’ve always felt that when traveling you should go to a bookshop or a library, since the insight they give into  a new place is always interesting and one you might not otherwise get.  I also try to read books about the places I’m going or written by people who call those places home.  But it’s IMG_2140only recently that I’ve started reflecting on the importance of carrying books and writers and special words with you from the place you come from.  I think we enrich the lives of the people we meet if we can bring some unique line of poetry or some unique, untranslatable word from our language out into the world with us.  But maybe we also enrich our own lives, by carrying a piece of home with us.

The French Bookshop, you might say, is a concrete illustration of that principle, a way for ex-pats and émigrés to bring something with them from one home to another, so that they can stay connected to their culture while also bringing it with them as a gift for new neighbours.  And I think there’s something lovely about the thought that when people leave home for unfamiliar shores, the thing they create to remember where they used to be is a bookshop; the things they carry with them to remember who they used to be are words and stories.

She Said Boom!

IMG_2134She Said Boom!, 372 College Street, Toronto, Canada, M5T 2N9

There’s a lot of pessimism about books at the moment.  When I tell people I’m devoted to real books they look at me like I’m a bit sad and hopeless; when I tell them I want to own a little bookshop one day they say things like ‘Well, if people still read books in ten years, that is…’ or ‘But there won’t be any bookshops in the future…’  and other nonsense.

We’ve all watched in horror as, in America, Borders closed, in Canada,Indigo replaced books with slippers and throw pillows and in the UK, Waterstones dropped the apostrophe and added Kindles to its shelves. We’ve all seen a local independent close.  We’ve all heard the by-now trite advice that if a bookshop wants to survive, it has to up its game, becoming a cafe on the side and selling games, toys and household trinkets that have only the most tenuous relation to actual books.

It’s a sad day for our culture when books aren’t enough, when the hundreds or thousands of titles available in a bookshop can’t hold our attention.  Because, you know, it’s just the entire creative and intellectual output of an entire civilisation, but you’re right, it’s just boring when we can’t also buy chaimochafrappacinolattes and throw pillows in the same place.

The sooth-sayers are loving it, saying that bookshops are doomed, saying that consumers are too lazy to leave home and too apathetic to support local businesses. Frankly, it’s all crap.

I know that because yesterday I went to She Said Boom!, a used bookshop in downtown Toronto, which thoroughly lifted my spirits.  She Said Boom!, which sells books, comics, CDs and records, is not gimmicky or touristy or sexy.  It’s just a good bookshop.  All that means and all that should ever have to mean is that it has knowledgeable staff, a good selection and a bit of room to browse.  A beloved institution on College Street, She Said Boom! was bustling when I visited.  It does this old heart good to see that a good local bookshop can still draw a crowd.

The College Street location is a kind of satellite store for She Said Boom!’s main IMG_2133location in Roncesvalles Village in the West End of Toronto.  Both have excellent and very broad selections of books, but specialise in Literature, Philosophy (of the Eastern and Western varieties), History and Politics.  The College Street shop also has an interesting selection of books on Religion and a great poetry section, where one of the booksellers had a  really sweet conversation with an older customer about his love of Robert Frost as she helped him find Frost’s Collected Poems.

At the College Street location, the books get the most attention.  Bookshelves cover all available wall space in the shop, jutting out into the middle in places to create nice little private nooks where mousy booklovers can follow the alphabet from A to Z as the Fiction section snakes its way over many shelves and in and out of corners.  All the books are used, so they are always significantly cheaper than retail price.  Even though I really shouldn’t be buying too many books while I’m away, I bought Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie for $8 (£4.75) and I love it so far.  Salman Rushdie is one of those authors whose writing I trust so deeply that I will gladly buy anything he wrote without reading the blurb; his name is enough for me.

She Said Boom! has a section devoted to the Classics, by which they do not mean Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, but actual Classical writing from the Ancient Greeks and Romans.  I love when bookshops have a selection of Classical literature that has more in it than The IliadThe Odyssey and The Aeneid.  Here, you can find Greek tragedy, epic poems, Roman comedy and all the greatest writers of antiquity, including Sophocles, Euripides, Catallus, Cicero and Ovid.  Like any good bookshop, She Said Boom! has a selection that does more than just satisfy your cravings and demands, but inspires you to explore different books and give them a chance.

IMG_2131In the middle of the shop, there are tables and boxes full of records, CDs and even the odd cassette tape.  Now, I may know my way around a bookshelf, but (as that statement perhaps proves) I’m not very cool. The people rummaging through these boxes of old records like they were on a treasure hunt definitely are, so I was reluctant to budge in and push them out of the way; they looked like they knew what they were doing.

I was a bit intimidated at first by these objectively cooler browsers (not to mention the tattoo-ed, incense-burning, Velvet Underground-playing, grumpy-looking staff).  But then I saw the looks of joy and contentment on the faces of all different kinds of browsers, whether they were mouthing Robert Frost poems to themselves, gingerly turning the pages of vintage comics or quickly flipping through piles of records like they were magazine pages.  And I realised that what’s so great about She Said Boom! is that they have something for everyone, and a way of bringing out the geek in each one of us.

Bookshops like this – good bookshops – are places where it’s okay to get excited about silly little things like paper books and vinyl records that other people will IMG_2132try to tell you are behind the times.  Good bookshops are places where we come together to acknowledge our common weirdness, our geekiness, our passions for things that other people tell us aren’t worth it. I’m partial to books, but I think that what I’m looking for between the pages is the same thing that other people find through their favourite lyric or a single burst of colour on a canvas.  We’re all just looking to know that someone else in the world shares (or once shared) our passions, our thoughts, our feelings.

That’s why we still need bookshops like She Said Boom!, where the passionate weirdos and misfits who’ll one day rule the world can discover new things to get inappropriately excited about and fan the flames of lifelong passions.

Balfour Books

IMG_2129Balfour Books, 468 College Street West, Toronto, Canada, M6G 1A1

I finished a book last night.  Curled up in bed to protect myself against the cold weather in Toronto, Umberto Eco took me away to an uncharted island somewhere in Polynesia in 1643 in The Island of the Day Before. I always leave myself one sleep before starting a new book.  If you close one and immediately open another you do a disservice to the new book, since you’re still really in the world of the other.  So I went to bed, and woke up this morning feeling a book-shaped void in my life.  I have 6 days left in my trip to Toronto and, finding myself out of books, I headed out to Balfour Books in a panic.

Buying books for or while on a holiday is a tricky business.  You don’t want to bring War and Peace because you might well spend the whole time reading one book, which seems a waste.  On the other hand, you don’t want to bring five or six shorter books because – as the Kindle Zombies will tell you – IMG_2127books are sooooo unbearably heavy that I don’t even know how anyone ever carried one.  (My answer to said Kindle Zombies: ditch two or three pairs of shoes and all your gadgets for a few books so you have something actually interesting to do and stop moaning.)  That said, I do try to bring only a few books on holiday – the more books you have the more likely you are to forget one or leave an old one behind to have space for a new one.  And, for me, part of the fun of traveling with books is bringing them home again, with a ticket stub or metro pass from another city tucked in somewhere, to sit on my shelf and remind me of my travels.

But if you don’t bring enough books you may end up with six days left and no reading material.  This gives you the chance to go book-hunting in a new city, but suddenly you are looking for just one book to get you through.  Suddenly you have to worry about how long it you should buy to keep you busy and how thick or thin it needs to be to fit in your bag.  It’s stressful.

I thought a lot (probably too much) about all these questions and in the end IMG_2122decided to visit Balfour Books, a used bookshop on College Street, to find something relatively short but interesting and challenging enough that I wouldn’t speed through it too quickly.  I had Virginia Woolf in mind because her novels meet those criteria, and because she’d prepare me to go back to London.  I walked for ages along a grey and dreary College Street so by the time I finally saw Balfour Books I was more than ready to get out of the cold and the harsh banality of downtown Toronto and wrap myself up in the soft, comfortable glow of the bookshop.

The advantage of book-hunting at 11am on a Tuesday is that everyone who IMG_2127actually lives here is at work, so I was the only customer.  As I wandered around the shelves and in and out of quiet enclaves, I was alone with books, classical music and the quiet chatter of the lovely bookseller and another woman I suspect was an employee or a friend.  They politely welcomed me when I came in, offered to help and then left me to browse silently, which is all I ever want to do.  I love booksellers who get that.  While I planted myself down in a chair near the Fiction section, the two ladies continued their conversation which meandered from books to art to wildlife to travel and back to books again.  I could have sat there for hours listening.

IMG_2120The bookshop has a great selection of books from many different genres.  The fiction selection is huge and includes everything from ancient Greece to the present, with books that range from cheap paperback editions of classics to beautiful hardcover copies of contemporary novels by the biggest authors of recent years.  Speaking of which, atop a lovely old chest of drawers at the front of the shop, short story collections by Alice Munro catch the eye and remind the world that, finally, a Canadian has actually done something worthwhile.  I tease, but Alice Munro is brilliant and deserves the attention.  IMG_2124Besides, it’s always good when a bookshop makes the effort to get its customers to pay attention to good writing.   Balfour Books also has travel, cooking, science, art, architecture, mystery, poetry and drama sections which are excellently stocked and have labels on the shelves made of Scrabble letters.  It’s so cool.  The books range from pristine almost-new copies to battered old ones which are nearly falling apart!

There is also an excellent children’s section, where you’ll find classic and contemporary picture books, the very best of chapter books as well as some IMG_2125young adult and teen titles.  My favourite part of the children’s section, though, are the ancient (or at least vintage!) hardback copies of well-known children’s favourites and their lesser-known contemporaries.  There are lovely old copies of The Jungle Book and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and an 1865 children’s book called The Brownies by Juliana Ewing, about magical little creatures who sneak into homes and night and help out.  This was the book that gave the Baden-Powells their name for the younger division of the Girl Guides.  I’m a Brownie leader in London by night so this made me very happy and I nearly bought it.  Had I not been on holiday and worried about the weight of my bag I would have.

After being distracted from my Virginia Woolf search by several IMG_2128novels, a book of poetry and a biography of Hillary Clinton I knelt down and rummaged through the pile of paperbacks and pulled out two of Woolf’s novels that I haven’t read: Jacob’s Room and Orlando.  They were both only $4 (£2.40) and I’m sure I would have loved either.  But something made me put them down. I love Virginia Woolf.  I love the way her tales of London are 90 odd years old but still add something to my own experience of that city.  But sitting there, crouched over the bottom shelf, I realised that when you’re traveling, even somewhere not really new, it seems like a cop-out to pick out a book that reminds you of the place you came from or are going back to.  There will always be time for the familiar, but when you’re far away it’s good to embrace someone else’s familiar.  Surely that, above all else, is what books teach us.

Nothing would have been nearly as interesting if Bilbo Baggins had got his way and stayed at  home living his normal happy life.   I would have had IMG_2121nothing to entertain me last night if Umberto Eco’s Roberto had never left his little Italian village and made his way toward the lights of seventeenth century Paris.  The adventure plot is one of the oldest in Western literature and there’s a reason we’re still fascinated by it.  It’s why we travel.  It’s why we go to new places and it’s why we return years later to the old ones.  There may not be dragons, there may not be gold, there may not be a fair maiden, but if we listen to the songs and stories of the people in the places where we find ourselves, sometimes, we really do find ourselves.  So I took the hint.  I bought The Progress of Love by Alice Munro for $7.  I hope that reading it will help me find a way to link the stories of the place I came from with the stories of the many places where I’ll find myself.