A few weeks ago, I went to London. I love London, among other things because I fucking love London. There are lots of reasons for this, some more personal than others, but high on the list is the fact that London is a book city, so much so that it makes me feel like this:
-Sarah’s excited reaction. From Sarah & Duck.
It’s not that we don’t love books in the States. I was a bookseller for ten years before I became a librarian and I can tell you right now that there are lots and lots of Americans who love their books. We fundraise for libraries and champion literacy like champs. I can’t even walk down the street wearing my Reading Rainbow tee-shirt without someone asking me where I got it. (Here, in case you were wondering). But that’s not quite what I mean.
It’s the difference between a lot of wonderful, book-loving individuals scattered across more 2,600 miles of geography and a country that televises the Man Booker Prize because there are betting pools and it’s serious. It’s the difference between book clubs discussing a summer release and two guys throwing down in a pub over whether you’re a “pretentious, fucking twat” for having read Ulysses or an “ignorant fuck” if you haven’t. (I overheard that debate, and it was awesome – super critical in the most un-bullshit way I’ve ever seen).
But even that can be found in the States (though probably not in a bar). For me, what makes London a book city is that fact that there are bookstores everywhere, from chains to tiny independents, and they are full of books – not sidelines, CD’s, toys, games and books. Just books. I like that you can ask booksellers what they’d recommend and trust that they have an informed opinion. I like that bookshops in London range from hodge-podge collections in stores smaller than my grandmother’s house to polished, muti-floor giants you could spend the whole day in.
Here’s the thing. I come from a city that is famous for its literary heritage thanks to Steinbeck and Burroughs and Kerouac. But bookselling and publishing have changed so much in the States that even a city like San Francisco can’t support more than a handful of scrappy, often struggling independents. And yes, I can order almost anything I want on Amazon and I can download everything else onto my Kindle (though my brain refuses to fully engage digital text). It’s not that I can’t get anything I want because I can. I just can get it in a way that feels real.
I can’t walk a mile and hit a couple of bookshops on my way to somewhere else. I can’t spend ages meandering sections and pulling (way too many) books off the shelves before handing a nice person money so I can take them home with me now. That sort of experience is a luxury like clotted cream and sleeping past 8am. And I’m not sure I’d want to that to change.
I say not sure because if someone told me that I could live in London I’d move. Like, yesterday. But no one is going to give me their flat anytime soon so I like enjoying the specialness of it. Because it is special to me. Books are tactile things – the massively cliched but totally distinct scent of paper and ink is a thing, and so is touching the object you’re going to buy. The real value of brick and mortar bookshops is that they foster a tactile relationship between the book and the person who buys it. And, because I’m a romantic, I want to enjoy that relationship, even if I only get to taste it now and then – especially if only now and then.
Don’t get me wrong. I wish the book business in the States was more boom than bust, that there were more prizes and more interest in shortlists. I wish there were more independents staffed by people who hand-sell titles because they fucking love that book. I wish I could stroll down the street and come home with something random that I can’t wait to read. But I can’t, at least, not living in a suburb of a lovely city that is struggling to hold onto the few bookshops it has left.
That’s one of the reasons I love London so much. I will never get to all of the city’s bookstores let alone all of the shops in the rest of the country, but I love that they’re there, all dreamy and wonderful to think about. Books in London are a treat and I like it that way, even when it means dragging luggage that weighs 9,000 pounds through the tube, and waiting longer than I’d like to be there again.