Persephone Books, 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, WC1N 3NB
Persephone Books is a really wonderful bookshop because, bucking the trend of generalising and synthesising that big chains started and so many independents are being forced into to stay afloat, Persephone is doing it their own way. Instead of pandering to the momentary obsession of the public, who, frankly, sometimes don’t know what’s best for them, Persephone’s stock consists almost exclusively of little-known or previously-unpublished books from the early twentieth century by forgotten or overlooked authors, most of whom (but not all!) are women.
There are a couple of titles by biggies like Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and Frances Hodgson Burnett, but most of the rest are very obscure. Persephone should be lauded for bringing their books back to the light of day.
Unfortunately for these authors, the light of the day they’ve just seen was pretty non-existent. It’s bad luck to be reincarnated on such a grey and dreary day of January in England. If not for my lunchtime poke through this bookshop, I would have written off the day to the “Should’ve Spent it in Bed” category. But even in the drizzle, Persephone is the most appealing in a long row of attractive shops on Lamb’s Conduit Street. In the window, Persephone’s books and Persephone Classics (the favourites, which have pretty covers!) are displayed beautifully, along with some very tasteful bunting and a little basket with free copies of the Biannual magazine which passersby can grab.
Inside, the shop is warm. It’s dimly lit, with the glow of Old Hollywood but the front windows are big and bright, letting in what little sun there is to be let in on grey winter days. The walls are decorated with wartime posters and suffragette posters, in keeping with the feel of the shop and the books in it. The whole thing feels a bit like your aunt’s living room, but in a good way. Like your cool old aunt who got arrested for political activism once and now plays bridge and knits. It’s not exactly a place for sprawling up and putting your feet out; the hush of the shop and the quiet road are too serious for that. But it’s certainly a place where you can quietly wander, browsing and poking through shelves and enjoying the comfortable, comforting silence.
Very little of the shop is actually for books; probably the back 2/3 is where the staff work. You can just snatch a peek at the back room, where boxes of books are piled high and an antique typewriter crouches seductively on a desk. But in the front, the shelves are covered with grey Persephone books of all sizes. Each book has a grey cover with a simple, minimalist design and a uniquely designed inside leaf. There is a pile of copies of each title, with a pile of bookmarks specific to each book lying beside them. Since these titles are so little-known, under each pile there is a brief summary of the book to help clueless browsers (like me) muddle through. It’s a great system! I wish they had it in every bookshop!
Today I bought a book called Manja by Anna Gmeyner, which is the story of five children who grow up together and try to remain loyal friends to each other in the chaotic lead-up to the second world war. All the books cost £12 (or 3 for £30) regardless of their size, which makes things easy. Some would grumble at the idea of spending £12 for a paperback when you can get it for 20p on Amazon, but those people would be gravely misbehaving, for two reasons. Firstly, at Waterstone’s you’d pay probably around £8 for a paperback. If you’re seriously telling me you wouldn’t be willing to fork over an extra £4 for a beautiful, specially designed book that’s been saved from the rubbish bin of history by the hard work and talent of passionate bibliophiles and can be found not in a massive, screeching circus-like superstore but in a quiet, elegant little bookshop…well frankly, you just don’t deserve to know how to read, now do you? Secondly, the books published and sold by Persephone are theirs alone; they rescued them and their bookshop is the only place you’ll find most of them.
It’s possible, I suppose, that we’re already living in a world where the art of browsing is lost and nobody ever reads anything but Amazon’s top ten. But Persephone begs to differ.
Here is a business that could have arisen from nothing but an absolute passion for literature and a serious and sustained interest in uncovering forgotten, hidden or marginalised voices from the past. If you doubt it, just imagine the hypothetical meeting with a stuffy old bank man, trying to explain to him that you want a loan to start up a bookshop in London that only sells obscure novels that you’ve dug up from the inter-war years by authors who never really made it big and most people have never heard of. This could only have been a labour of love. This shop is the little engine that could; despite half the population’s scepticism about the importance of books and their future in our lives, Persephone is going strong and, in fact, doing better than ever. Some of the titles they’ve reintroduced have been picked up by mainstream media and turned into films like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and The Making of a Lady (formerly the book The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett.) And now that stuffy old business man (who I’ve maliciously created and imagine is purple-faced, chubby, has boils on his face and enjoys eating children) is kicking himself for not getting in on this.
The fact that it’s still there and thriving and shows no signs of slowing down fills me with a warm feeling that makes me want to hug everyone. It goes to show that if you believe in something enough, no one can take it away from you. And if you are lucky enough to find crazy people who think your crazy idea is brilliant, you’re set, despite what the soothsayers say. The fact that this place exists makes a strong argument that we Book-Lovers, we loyal Page-Sniffers, we Shelf-Stalkers, we Yarn-Spinners, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers…wait, that’s not mine…well, we believers should take heart and have hope because places as special as this, books as meaningful as these, will not be going anywhere without a fight.