“How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!”
– Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”
It’s possible that you don’t really know a city until you have one or two (or six or seventeen) go-to “local” bookshops. For me, Judd Books on Marchmont Street and, coincidentally, Skoob, just down the road, are the two bookshops that I will always head to first. I have visited some strange and some wholly unique bookshops in my adventures, but Judd Books is Old Faithful. The stock of used and discounted new books is huge and I almost never leave without the book I’m looking for. Even when I do, though, I don’t leave empty-handed. So I guess you could say that it’s my local bookshop. But what’s remarkable is that it’s also many other people’s local bookshop! On a rainy Saturday afternoon at the end of October, when few would dare venture outside, the warm lights of Judd bookshop (“Open for Bookselling!”) lured in not just this bookworm, but scores of others. Some bookshops, even when full, are full of tourists or browsers or one-timers, but Judd Books is (or at least seems to be) at the heart of a community, a beloved port of call for many people. It’s also, happily, full of those famous nooks and crannies that bibliophiles crave and I found myself having to edge around other customers to nestle into them. Normally that would bother me, but Judd’s customers are quiet, bookish people who you can’t help but love and besides, it’s encouraging to see so many people craning their necks to look at shelves and sniffing pages.
I gravitated automatically to the poetry section where I seriously considered buying The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson but decided against it because it’s absolutely giant; old Em was a very busy lady, apparently. I knew that if I brought home another 500 page book I’d struggle to find a place for it on our overflowing bookshelf or on top of the pile of books almost half the height of the bookshelf itself that’s collecting beside it. From poetry, I moved on to the neighbouring Literary Biography, where I picked out John Tytell’s biography of Ezra Pound, Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Ezra who, even after a year or researching and writing about his Cantos, still exercises some kind of hold on me. The price had been marked down from a cover price of $18.95 to just over £4.
Upstairs, the shelves are filled from floor to ceiling with fiction, poetry, literary biography, music, culture, literary criticism, art, architecture and film. I’m always impressed by the presence of both quirky, falling-apart second hand books and truly handy, fresh and new academic books at discounted prices. Downstairs, there is an equally wide and varied selection of Philosophy, History, Economics and Politics books, in addition to some more specialised sections like Women’s studies, LGBT literature and theory, African American culture and Anarchism. But, my very favourite of all these categories is the “Books About Books” section. It was there that I found my second treasure, Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books. In this lovely hardcover book, the editor, Leah Price, interviews writers – some famous, some obscure – about the books on their bookshelves. I particularly enjoyed Philip Pullman’s comment about Kindles: “When the big crash comes, I shall throw away my Kindle without a moment’s regret; but my books will last as long as I do.” Price takes tantalising pictures of these amazing libraries and asks each writer to pick their top ten books. I found it really interesting to think about what mine would be.
(Incidentally, also, boringly and self-indulgently, I think my choices would be: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith, The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot, Orientalism by Edward Said, Ulysses by James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake, Swann’s Way (from In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust and Matilda by Roald Dahl.)
The joy that I still found in this beautiful bookshop, in fellow book-hunters and in an unexpected find gave me hope. Some people have told me that books are dying, that we’re heading toward a world where children read on their Kindles and eventually won’t read at all and that it’s inevitable. I have been told that I’m wasting my energy on a lost cause. Well, let me say this: I love lost causes. They’re the best kind. No one devotes their time, their energy, their passion, even their life, to something that’s inevitable, something that everyone else believes, something that doesn’t need defending. No, I think we fight our most impassioned and courageous fights for the things that we know we may not change, but which we know are worth fighting for anyway. And so, critics, soothsayers, mindless automatons, know this: every time you tell me, hoping to put out this flame in me, that books are dispensible, that reading is a thing of the past, that these bookshops I love will all be gone in ten years, I can assure you that all you’re doing is fanning that flame.