Tag Archives: theatre

The European Bookshop

172920The European Bookshop, 5 Warwick Street, London, W1B 5LU

The view from the southern foot of London Bridge always seems to me to capture the essential character of this city.

To the left is Southwark Cathedral, which has stood for over a thousand years and is still in use.  On a Thursday, Friday or Saturday the courtyard outside this medieval site is filled with hungry Londoners eating meals from Borough Market, which has existed since 1040, though its current incarnation is decidedly Victorian.  Looking East is Tower Bridge, rising up victorious and grand from the Thames in all its late-Victorian glory and leading towards the Tower of London on the North side of the river, which also dates back to the eleventh century.  To the northeast is St Paul’s Cathedral, that most distinctive of London landmarks, an oily rascal known as well as Shakespeare’s Falstaff (Henry IV , anyone? anyone?) built at the close of the seventeenth century.  And the Gherkin – a symbol of London as a global financial centre – and the Shard make their case for the power of the new millenium.

The layers of history, the palimpsest of stories told by generations of Londoners and newcomers, make London what it is.  Ancient and modern, old families and humble immigrants, traditionalists and revolutionaries co-exist here, adding layers of stories which enrich rather than replace the city’s past.

Across the city, in Piccadilly Circus, the same is IMG_2111true.  London’s oldest bookshop, Hatchard’s, may be overshadowed by the huge Waterstone’s, but it’s still there.  Clarissa Dalloway’s harried wanderings along Regent Street and Bond Street may not have the same immediacy as the enormous Top Shop assaulting you with pop music, but even that fictional character colours the way I experience the area.  It is the middle ground between posh Mayfair, busy Oxford Circus and trendy Soho with its own unique history.  The layers of history in every part of London reflect the generations of people who have come here from other parts of the country and the world and added their touch or made a home.

So it’s no wonder that the stories of London are read and written and told in IMG_2114many dialects and languages, translated from Old English to Modern English, into Portuguese and Farsi and mirrored back to us in similar stories that arrive from all over the world.  We need only look at the number of Arabic, Russian, Polish, French and Bengali bookshops that have filled up the city to see how much London has benefited from the profusion of other and different voices that fill it.  One of these, hiding from garish Regent Street on a quiet road in Soho, is the European Bookshop.  It’s the best place in London to find books written in, translated from and translated into French, Spanish, Italian or German.


Now, having lived in North America, I am particularly appreciative of the mere fact that this bookshop exists.  Cuz, like, hello, there are, like, other languages, dude!  Even though my rusty French and dodgy Spanish keep me from fully appreciating what’s on offer, it makes me very happy that I live in a city which respects the importance of hearing each other’s stories enough for a place like the European Bookshop to thrive.

IMG_2116The ground floor is a Francophile’s paradise, full of French literature, poetry, philosophy and social commentary.  From Balzac to Baudelaire, Sade to Sartre, all of the famous Frenchmen and women who have captured the world’s imaginations are available in their original language, which is always the best way to read them.  But what is particularly brilliant about the European Bookshop is that it doesn’t settle for just the crowd-pleasers.   We can also explore the work of writers whose fame never went beyond France, or those we tend to forget originally wrote in French (cough cough, Samuel Beckett!)  It also gives browsers the chance to learn about writing from other Francophone IMG_2118countries or regions.  I discovered a Quebecois playwright, a Moroccan novelist and a wealth of novels and poetry by writers from former French colonies in North Africa, writing about the post-colonial experience in their colonial language.  I was reminded of how powerful and how inflammatory language can be, and of the power and significance of words, which we too often waste or use foolishly.

There is a small Italian bookshop at the back of the ground floor as well and IMG_2110Spanish and German books are downstairs.  In each you’ll find well-stocked selections of fiction, biography, history, poetry and theatre but there are also translation of English books into other languages. In the German section are the twisted fairy tales, imaginative novels and grim memoirs that you would expect from the country and the language, but their original passion and force is restored to them, I imagine, by being read in the language in which they were written.  If you’re interested in anything from Walter Benjamin’s brilliant musings to Angela Merkel’s biography, this is the place to go.

 In the Spanish ‘Traducciones’ section I found Ulisses by James Joyce, a translation of the epic novel.  Reading Ulysses in English is enough of a IMG_2113struggle, but trying to do so in translation is a task I’ll just have to admit I’m not up to.  Distressingly, Joyce is only two books away from Spanish translations of the 50 Shades series. Normally this would have made me livid, but I realised that looking at the wall of Spanish books next to me, I had no idea which books were award-winners and which were rubbish and that maybe that’s okay.  Now don’t get me wrong.  As an unrepentant book snob I think it’s extremely important to recognise good literature and – if nothing else – quite a lot of fun to deride bad literature, but IMG_2112every once in a while, it’s nice to leave ideas of good/bad or respected/mocked behind and just let yourself get swept up in the magic of a wall full of books.  And rummaging through a collection of poetry, plays and stories in another language is a great way to bring back the mystery and adventure of reading for its own sake.  Some books may be better than others, but when you’re liberated from prejudices and preconceptions, the only way to find out is to read!  We can return to our snobbery later; it’ll still be there.  Like all of our human failings, it’s not going anywhere, but the elusive glimmer of adventure is only a fleeting one.

IMG_2115In each section there is a collection of children’s books.  Which makes sense, really, because the best way to get some one to fall in love with words and language is through a good old-fashioned bedtime story.  Whether they take you to a dark enchanted forest or an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, the love of words starts with a book, read anywhere in the world, in any language.  The particular magic of The European Bookshop is that, like the city that gave it a home, it brings so many stories together in one place, not to replace each other, but merely to enrich our understanding of the story-filled world around us.


The Calder Bookshop Theatre

IMG_2023Calder Bookshop Theatre, 51 The Cut, London, SE1 8LF

The Cut is a busy South London street that runs from Southwark station to Waterloo.  The home of both the Old Vic and the Young Vic, it is a thriving part of the area and, more importantly, of London’s theatre scene.  The Calder Bookshop Theatre, right across from the Young Vic – recently dubbed London’s sexiest theatre by TimeOut – is one of those peculiar creatures that is so weirdly amazing and anomalous that it could only exist in London.

The  shop, which moonlights as a theatre, specialises in theatre books, by which I mean books about drama, criticism and theory about theatre and performance IMG_2022and an unrivaled selection of plays from across the world, stretching all the way back to Ancient Greek tragedy and forward into experimental contemporary pieces.  Drama is one of those genres – like poetry – that tends to be marginalised in most bookshops, given one shelf of the same old names and tacked on to the end of Fiction like an afterthought.  But not here!  At the Calder Bookshop, plays – appropriately – take centre stage.  There are discounted classic novels on the tables outside and the table in the centre of the one large room that makes up the shop, but the emphasis really is not on them.

After you’ve made your way through the Books on Theatre area that greets you when you enter, you realise that about three quarters of the shelf space in the IMG_2019shop is dedicated to plays, organised in alphabetical order.  The editions range from Penguin Classics editions of Aeschylus to pocket-sized copies of plays by lesser known playwrights, published by small arty publishing houses.  It’s no surprise that in a bookshop less than a mile away from Shakespeare’s Globe, that the Bard has his own section, which is stocked with Arden editions (the very best) of all his plays.  However, despite the focus on this local hero, on the whol the selection has a refreshingly international outlook.  Although European plays still predominate (the kings of the roost are gentlemen like Moliere, Chekov, Beckett, Sartre, Ibsen and Strindberg), the effort has clearly been made to include work by classic and contemporary South American and African writers in particular.  These are baby steps to be sure, but there decidedly in the right direction.

Finally, the remaining space is dedicated to Politics and Philosophy.  While both are quite Marx-heavy and noticeably veer toward the left, the selection is thoughtful and interesting, cementing the shop’s claim that it does more than IMG_2020just plays.  The philosophy books on offer present a wide range and, again, cover most of the big names from Ancient Greece to the late twentieth century, Plato to Lacan. It was here that I spotted the book I ended up coming home with.  If you’re not familiar with Penguin’s Great Ideas series, you really ought to check them out.  The small just-bigger-than-pocket-sized books are new editions of the essays, books and treatises that changed the world.  Among the repetoire are hefty texts like Mary Wollestonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Woman, Sun-tzu’s The Art of War, Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto and Darwin’s On Natural Selection.  This series, in my opinion, does more to prove that words can change the world than any amount of academic philosophical waxing ever could.  I bought their edition Proust’s long essay Days of Reading a while ago from the Kennington Bookshop and ever since, I’ve been quite evangelical about the joys of the series.  Today, I bought  Thorstein Veblen’s Conspicuous Consumption for £4.99 and just can’t wait to tuck into the deliciously anti-capitalist rant.

IMG_2021Perhaps the most exciting thing about the shop, the thing which makes it such a typical London establishment, is that in the back it holds a wonderful surprise.  At night, the back room serves as a theatre, where drama-lovers and book-lovers can come together to be inspired by the work of playwrights past and present, all conveniently brought together under one roof.  The events are always changing, so check out their website if you feel like tagging along for a workshop, a play or an evening of cinema.  Like London itself, The Calder Bookshop Theatre is the kind of place where random and delightful things just kind of happen sometimes, without warning or announcement or advertising, as if they’ve sprung right out of the imagination of some surrealist artist and into life fully-formed.