Primrose Hill Books

IMG_2005Primrose Hill Books, 134 Regent’s Park Road, London,  NW1 8XL

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 IMG_2004offer 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 IMG_2002surface 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 IMG_1999well-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.

IMG_2003The 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 IMG_2001time.  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 IMG_2000Wanderer 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 IMG_2003asked 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.

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13 responses to “Primrose Hill Books

  1. There’s an old song called Primrose Lane that contains lyrics like “Life’s a holiday on Primrose Lane”. Oh to be at the Primrose Bookshop on holiday! You continue to whet my appetite for a bookshop tour in London.

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  2. I found it interesting that you didn’t just say that two women were talking in loud voices rather than mentioning that they were American.

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    • Ha, not sure why really, didn’t even think about it. The accent stands out a bit so I guess the detail stuck in my head and found its way out when I was writing. But I certainly don’t want to offend (or perpetuate any nasty stereotypes!) so I may change it to something more neutral. x

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  3. .”..William Faulkner to Jodi Picoult, two ends of the spectrum when it comes to complexity and intelligence.”

    This is hilarious. Wonder what Jodi Pucoult and her MILLIONS of fans would do to you if they ever find out where you live! 😉

    Your dedication to real books and reading is admirable. The truth is in today’s age people do not have that much time to read. You seem to be one of the lucky ones who successfully make reading a major part of their life.

    Are you aware of Michael Silverblatt’s show Bookworm? Here’s an interview with Michael Silverblatt. That guy is quite something, THE KING OF READERS….

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  4. I have such a different perspective on hardcover books – I simply cannot bring myself to buy them unless it is absolutely necessary – and I actually feel badly about the few “accidental” hardcovers that stand out on my bookshelves. Oh, except for some lovely Dickens, and a collection of Blake, and obviously all of my biology textbooks. No, I mean the odd current fiction book here and there that I have in hardback for no good reason, and they stick out on my bookshelves like big overpriced stand-outy things so I feel oddly guilty when there are perfectly good paperback versions of them available. A few gift books, for instance – a double whammy of guilt, because now I feel guilt that I don’t appreciate the gift as much as I should!

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    • I see what you mean for sure and it’s a shame that they make us feel like we’re being too decadent! I guess I just try to remind myself that if it’s a good book, a hardcover is so much more durable and sturdy; the kind of book you’d want to pass down to your children or, alternatively, end up in a secondhand bookshop for someone else to fawn over. Don’t be too hard on yourself! x

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  5. Leskov *is* a wonderful writer, though the lovely hardback you describe is I think the one by Pevear and Volokhonsky – and I have read not good things about their translation. I have been seeking out older translations by David McDuff and David Magarshack which are apparently very good!

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    • Oh really? Thanks for letting me know. I might get it anyway since it’s such a lovely edition, but with the best writers there’s no harm in reading multiple translations. Thanks for the heads-up!

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      • Larissa Volokhonsky

        Thank you, Emily, for your wise reply. Your correspondent failed to mention that good things were also said about our translation. Besides, our collection of Leskov has ten previously untranslated stories including “The Voice of Nature” mentioned in Walter Benjamin’s essay. So there is no harm in giving it a try.

        Larissa Volokhonsky

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  6. I’ve never been, but I will visit soon – looks great

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  7. I don’t buy hardback books, on the basis that they’re expensive, awkward to carry around (they don’t fit easily in a handbag) and take up too much space on my limited bookshelves. My dad, on the other hand, only buys hardbacks. He likes them because they’re more attractive than paperbacks, they’re mure durable and because reading a hardback is more of an experience than reading a paperback.

    He has a theory that, with the rise of Kindles, within a few years paperbacks will have vanished and all we’ll be left with is e-books and hardbacks. That’s fine for him, but a loss for people like me who still want the experience of reading a real book without having to pay for a hardback.

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  8. This is certainly a special bookshop, full of books from smaller presses and little of the tat that the chains fill up spare spaces with. I bought a slim volume of folktales, with an introduction by Marina Warner, which I’d not ever seen before; it was pricey but I’m glad I’d got it. Agree about the piles of books being a little daunting.

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