‘And though she be but little, she is fierce.’
– A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 2, ll. 325.
I started off my Independent Booksellers’ Week with a pilgrimage to Clerkenwell Tales, a small but mighty bookshop on Exmouth Market. This is one of my favourite bookshops to pop into for a quick browse, just to see what’s new and stand in its welcoming atmosphere for a few minutes, even if I don’t buy anything. I first started going because it was right across the street from our go-to breakfast place and bakery, Gail’s. After filling up on their legendary hotcakes (served up with pears and walnuts), a long walk home is appealing and that walk is never complete without a stop at Clerkenwell Tales. This morning, a sunny if slightly nippy Saturday, the street was busy with people idly strolling, peering into the windows of shops and restaurants. Here, like on any good London street, a beautiful independent bookshop was the heart of this community: inclusive, inviting and the perfect addition to an already lovely day.
This shop is small, but that’s far from a problem. With only one room, the booksellers have used impressive ingenuity to create a space which feels like a traditional bookshop, but is actually quite different. As they’re working with less space, they simply can’t have the same quantity as larger shops and piles of books would ruin the neat and elegant layout of the shop. Instead of trying to squeeze everything in, they’ve chosen to be selective and offer a carefully curated range of fiction and non-fiction titles. This is clear just from looking at the books on display in the window, a clever and sophisticated mix of contemporary fiction, local interest and thoughtful, relevant non-fiction books.
An excellent taste in and passion for good books is evident, reminding us that quality is always more important than quantity. The books are divided into several different sections. Of course the largest one is dedicated to fiction and, while the selection can hardly be called wide, it is thoughtful and inspiring. I had my eyes on Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood (the main character is called Cordelia, a name I’ve adored ever since I first read King Lear) and Jackie Kay’s Reality, Reality which I’ve been meaning to read for ages.
The next section is ‘Books We Love,’ an entire bay full of books recommended by the book-loving staff who appear to be well-read people with impeccable taste. The offerings I saw today mixed contemporary fiction with political biographies and classic novels. It’s slightly disconcerting but also amusing and refreshing to see Kafka sitting beside Tessa Hadley and I think it encourages us to think about our own diverse tastes in literature and leave behind the silly idea of dividing the books we love into categories. This only creates a false sense that we, the readers, as well as the writers we love can be pigeon-holed, when really, who gets to decide that a die-hard Jane Austen fan can’t sandwich his/her copy of Pride and Prejudice between A Game of Thrones and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller? We’re all complex people and, as Clerkenwell Tales’ mix of genres and styles reminds us, our reading habits should be as diverse and idiosyncratic as we are.
The shop also has a wide selection of books about politics and culture, as well as some about food and the arts, most of which are clustered around the table in the middle and arranged beautifully. The smaller number of books works well in this shop, as each one is given more of a spotlight. This means, of course, that they all have to be the kind of book that will shine. Judging from how long I spent wandering around this central table, that mission has been accomplished.
Other interesting sections include ‘London’ – which features books about the city, famous literary Londoners and the history of the Clerkenwell and Farrindgon areas – and ‘Great Gift Ideas’ where you can find biographies of famous authors and artists, beautiful books of poetry and Penguin’s fantastic ‘Great Loves’ series of short stories and novellas about romance in beautiful pocket-sized editions. Finally, there’s the ‘New and Recently Reviewed’ bay. In the past year, as I’ve visited and written about dozens of bookshops, I’ve learned that a section dedicated solely to new books always indicates a good bookshop, one where the staff are knowledgeable and literature is taken seriously.
Perhaps my favourite section is ‘Great Ideas’ where a varied and – to some eyes – random collection of books invites the reader to pick up something new and unexpected that if you let it, might teach you something new or make you see old things in a new light. Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays caught my eye in particular, but it was surrounded by shelves full of other though-provoking collections of essays, biographies and works of non-fiction that encourage us – yes, us, who ‘google’ the answer to everything before we’ve even thought about it – to actually use our brains for a change. And, in a way, that’s what Clerkenwell Tales is there for. In its own quiet, unassuming way, it asks us to look inwards and examine our lives and to reflect on our world and the way we live in it, encouraging us to think critically, cross boundaries and surprise ourselves. Just like the best books always do.