On a sleepy little street just a few minutes away from Victoria Station and the screeching brakes of hundreds of buses, there is a little bookshop. Belgravia Books has a modern facade and a clean and tidy feel, but still feels like a quiet haven. The moment you open the door, you’re hit by the smell of new books. Although nothing compares to the old musty, papery smell of used books, a fresh white page smells pretty appealing too.
I went into the shop today on my lunch hour, which apparently is a slightly awkward time. It was a slow day and I was the only customer in the shop, so the staff were chatting away as if I wasn’t there, happily going about the business of running a bookshop. It was the nicest chatter to overhear. It also provided a great reminder of why this week – Independent Booksellers’ Week – decided to honour not bookshops themselves, but booksellers. Booksellers, those wonderful souls who spend their days making bookshops bright and welcoming for us and have offered – to this lonely book-hunter – invaluable support, advice and entertainment over the years.
If you’re looking for a book recommendation that’s a bit different, the second-best place to go, once you’ve exhausted your local bookseller’s knowledge, is to the independent publishers. And for goodness’ sake, by that I do not mean Amazon’s legion of self-publishers. If you thought I did, please give yourself a hearty slap on the forehead right now. By independent publishers I mean the smaller publishing houses and imprints that fill in a small niche. I mean publishers like Persephone Books, Hesperus Books, Virago Modern Classics and Capuchin Classics, who have found a particular genre or group of authors or unique vision to believe in and bring to the reading world. Incidentally, Belgravia Books stocks titles by all of those smaller publishers, which is perhaps not surprising since the bookshop was actually opened by Gallic Books, an independent publisher of French books. If you’re not familiar with the work of these publishing houses, you should consult your search engine of choice, learn about their titles and support them.
It’s always inspiring to see small bookshops that support these small publishers, stocking beautiful hand-picked books that you know somebody really cares about. And I like thinking of the idealistic young editor who really, passionately cares about and believes in their novels. Maybe it’s just me but I have a hard time imagining that any editor picked up 50 Shades of Grey and thought ‘Yes! It’s so beautiful! It speaks to the human condition in a way which transcends individualistic solipsism and makes the reader want to be a better human being! I must share it with the world so they too can experience the ameliorating beauty and truth of this masterpiece!’ No, I’m pretty sure it was just a money grab. So why tolerate something that just plays to the worst in people, when really, what good writers, publishers and bookshops like this one try to do is to try to evoke the best in us? And to that end, Belgravia Books presents the reader with high-quality contemporary literature, beloved classics and a range of new options that are finally getting the recognition they deserve. In amongst the collection of Classics, Virago’s titles by women writers, chosen to reflect the diversity and talent of women writers who had previously been side-lined in the past, took their rightful place next to their male counterparts.
It’s a place where you can’t help but discover something new and interesting, since so many unusual books are available. Today, I saw Penguin’s Street Art line, a series of novels with covers inspired by street art. I was particularly tempted by their edition of Don DeLillo’s Americana. The fact that I haven’t seen this particular series in any other bookshop suggests that someone at Belgravia Books is really on the ball when it comes to what’s happening in publishing right now.
For a relatively small space, there is an excellent variety of genres represented in the shop. You’ll find all the standbys, the things any good shop has to have, like history, politics, cookery and a lovely children’s section, where a toy lion lies sprawled on the floor. Do be careful not to confuse this stuffed animal with the dog who lives in the bookshop and, at least on a quiet Wednesday, might be lounging around on the floor himself. In addition to these sections, there is an excellent selection of books about London as well as a wide range of literary biographies and the Selected Letters of different authors. The one I particularly enjoyed was a book of the letters exchanged between Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford (who is a Belgravia native herself, incidentally). They’re absolutely amazing and if I ever come out with a one-liner half as witty as an idle comment Nancy Mitford threw out at random, I will consider it the greatest achievement of my life.
Belgravia Books, with its emphasis on providing readers with unique and original choices, is a reminder of everything that good bookselling can be and do. A bookshop where the booksellers care this much is a blessing to any reader, since it allows us to find a new favourite book in a place we never would have known to look on our own. It’s why booksellers are still relevant today, since they do a job that no website ever can. They’re not primarily there to make the sale or part you with your money, but to help you find the perfect book by using their expertise to suggest you look in places you’d never dream of on your own. Good bookshops, with well-stocked shelves and knowledgeable staff, are the best weapon we have against the threat of ignorance and laziness. Use them.