Primrose Hill Books, a small bookshop on the bustling Regent’s Park Road, was full of browsers today, the first actually warm day of this long ‘British summer’. As picnickers made their way to Primrose Hill, some stopped at the butcher’s across the road for snacks, others queued in front of the ice cream truck and I wandered into the bookshop, seduced by the tables of books on the tables outside.
The books on the front tables are all secondhand and include many orange Penguin classics for £3 or £4 as well as popular contemporary fiction. Strangely, the selection on offer ranged from William Faulkner to Jodi Picoult, two ends of the spectrum when it comes to complexity and intelligence. But that’s the beauty of secondhand bookselling and it’s nice that even here, a shop which offers mainly new books (though they sell used ones on their website) the secondhand selection still offers a taste of that randomness and idiosyncrasy.
Inside, the small, bright shop makes excellent use of every single inch of space, cramming brilliant books into every possible gap. At times this makes it difficult to find things, particularly since the stacks of books that cover every available surface are not piles of one book; they’re just piles. In order to see every book you have to risk looking like you’re about to bolt out the door by gathering one book after another to your chest as you unearth the one below it. While I’ll admit this is not exactly conducive to finding the book you’re looking for, it’s perfectly forgivable if what you’re after is just an idle browse. There’s a certain charm in not knowing what you’ll find next and when you’re in a bookshop filled with so many wonderful titles, that charm becomes excitement.
Primrose Hill Books caters to the local community as well as to the tourists and Londoners who flock to this lovely part of the city for an escape from their own drab and dreary lives. High expectations are met, with well-stocked poetry, history, politics and philosophy sections. All of these contained a selection of very good books and absolutely none of the rubbish that often pollutes lesser establishments. I think it’s reassuring to find a bookshop that has an entire section dedicated to philosophy, even if it is quite small; it’s a sign of the bookseller’s faith in readers and their ability to be brave and adventurous. The shop also has excellent children’s sections with one bay of books for ‘Younger Children’ and another for ‘Older Children.’ Again, the books selected are only the best and the lack of toys and other loud non-book things (which, again, tend to pollute lesser establishments) allows children to browse on their own in a section dedicated to them without other distractions.
The shop has a large, perfectly-alphabetised fiction section which presents a wide range of options to the browser. The pristine new books are enticing because in addition to being good books, they’re also good editions of the books. The shelf confronts you with the red spines that mean Vintage and the elegant white ones that mean Penguin’s Modern Classics. But perhaps my favourite thing about this bookshop is that the entire centre table is filled with rows and piles of hardcover books. These are not, as in some bookshops, just pretty editions of Jane Eyre, but hardcover editions of contemporary fiction, both famous and more obscure. There’s something nice about buying a hardback book, if you can spare the money. They’re the kind that you cherish, that you jealously guard from sticky-fingered children and that you pull down off the bookshelf every now and then just to look at again. I consider this visitation time. While it’s lovely to have a good hardcover copy of your all-time favourite (hence the abundance of Jane Eyres) it is also nice to buy a brand new hardcover. Since it’s sure to adorn your bookshop for a very long time, buying a new book in hardcover is a bit like a vote of confidence in the book, a promise that you believe in the relationship you might have with it.
One hardcover book in particular caught my eye. It was The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, a Vintage Classics hardcover edition of the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov’s short stories, with beautiful cover illustrations and a lovely introduction. The blurb refers to Leskov as the best Russian writer most of us have never heard of, an apt description which captures the sense of outrage most fans must feel at the fact that he gets so little recognition outside of Russia, despite the fact that his work inspired the great Russian authors we do know. Unfortunately it cost £25, since it’s a hefty book and in hardcover. I was tempted by this because I’ve been reading Angela Carter lately and really enjoying the way she reworks the conventions of fairy tales and folklore, something which Leskov does brilliantly. Coincidentally, I have also been reading Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’ about the demise of the oral story and he praises Leskov to the heavens for managing to capture in written prose the magic and the ambiguity of folklore and the oral storytelling tradition. I resolved to read his stories and to see them collected here in such a beautiful hardback edition, knowing that I won’t be bringing them home (today) was quite a mental trial.
Before leaving, I needed to make the rounds of the shop several times, since I didn’t want to miss anything. It was also partly because my first time around I was distracted by the chatting of two visitors who were completely oblivious to that fact that their voices were far too loud for this peaceful and contemplative space. One twittered away to the other about a book she had read recently and asked if the other had read it. ‘I think I’ve got it on my Kindle,’ she said, ‘but I always buy books for it and then forget about them…’ I couldn’t help but smugly think that while a 99p digital file downloaded from Amazon is completely forgettable, a beautiful hardcover that you bought in a distinctive local bookshop will be at the top of your mind until you’ve read it and probably for quite some time after. While they were a slight annoyance, very little could actually spoil the time I spent in this beautiful bookshop.
The most important thing is that I left with my appetite whetted and a new book on my list of things to read. This, really, is all you can ask of any bookshop. If you can leave with new ideas and questions in your mind, new titles and names on your lips and (if you’ve got the money!) a new adventure in your bag, then a bookshop has done its job.