A Bookish Trip to London: Pack Your Suitcase with Literary Associations!

Recently I spent a few days in London. I climbed countless stairs at countless museums, scrutinized Angela Carter’s manuscript of The Bloody Chamber, and rested in a pew in a small lovely 18th-century church.

London is a literary city.  We anglophiles can’t stop thinking about books.  When we pass the British Museum, we think of Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels, in which the practical, astute Catherine Oliphant, a writer of women’s magazine stories who lives near the British Museum, takes a break to watch the eccentric anthropologists across the street swarming to their new anthropological research centre.  (Catherine’s boyfriend is an anthropologist.)

Naturally, we bookish types aren’t always thinking about books,  but we visit as many bookstores as possible.

I bought fewer books than last time and was relatively frugal.

At Any Amount of Books, a used bookstore on Charing Cross Road, I was thrilled to find Angus Wilson’s weirdly absorbing 1961 novel, The Old Men at the Zoo, which takes us from bickering zoo administrators to an apocalypse in Europe.  The narrator, Simon Carter, the new secretary of the London Zoo,  tries to mitigate the quarrels behind the scenes as chaos descends.   The zoologists’ scuffles  parallel the politicians’ clumsy maneuvers as the world moves closer to a war.  Can the animals survive when every zoologist has a different scheme or theory (open park or nostalgic Victorian?)? And can  humans survive the politicians’ inability to communicate or negotiate?

Wilson writes this brief note in the beginning:

The events described here in 1970-3 are utterly improbable. Our future is probably brighter, probably much more gloomy.  All references to the London Zoo and to its staff are entirely imaginary.

I also visited The London Review Bookstore, an attractive shop in Bloomsbury which is owned by The London Review of Books.  (The LRB also has a cake shop next door.)

I browsed in the  poetry section and, since poetry books  make good gifts, I purchased Gyles Brandreth’s Dancing by the Light of the Moon, an  anthology of more than 250 of Brandreth’s favorite poems which he urges us “to read, to enjoy, and to learn by heart.”  Although you may have read many of the poems, I loved rereading Edward Lear, Donne, and some of Shakespeare’s famous speeches.  And I enjoy Brandreth’s tips for memorizing poems–not that I intend to do so.  Still, just two lines a day, he says. We can do it!  It will improve our memory and concentrations.

I also bought The Poems of Dorothy Molloy, an Irish poet unknown to me. I admire her wit and disturbing take on domesticity and love.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PACK THE EXTRA BOOKS?  Although packing books is challenging,  you will be surprised what a determined person can fit in a suitcase.  (Hardcovers on the bottom, paperbacks in the pouches.)   And wheeling the heavy suitcase develops upper-arm strength.  If we worked in bookstores, we wouldn’t need to work out at the gym.

What are your favorite London bookstores?  And do you visit bookstores in other cities?

Acceptable Condition: Some Used Books Are Not

A paperback in barely acceptable condition.

The used Penguin copy of Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds has chocolate stains on the pages.  I think they’re chocolate stains. 

And that is not the only book in disgraceful condition.  Three pages of The Grapes of Wrath are dotted with holes, apparently from a paperpunch. Then there is a slightly foxed paperback of Hesiod’s Theogony, with a confused family tree of the creation myth scribbled in purple ink on the back page.

Ecce, as they say in Latin. Lo!  These all came from the same decaying store.  It reeks of mustiness and dirt, like a basement rec room or a rag shop in Dickens.  The name is The Bookstore, or perhaps Books, Books, Books!   We suggest it be changed to Acceptable Condition, which of course means the opposite.

“The problem with M’s store,” said a friend, “is he/she will buy any book in any condition to have a conversation.”

There are some lonely-heart bookstore owners, but I have observed mostly crusty anti-social types.  My impression is they are sick of humanity and just want to read the books. 

I was pondering this the other day while considering my long history and complex relationship with used bookstores.

In graduate school, we occasionally sold  books. I sold them so I could afford  tampons for too-frequent periods. My husband also sometimes sold books.  A cockroach once crawled out of a copy of Derrida’s Of Grammatology  he was trying to sell.  (It wasn’t his fault:  the cockroach was a southern thing.) As you can imagine, the store owner found it unacceptable.  

There are some extraordinary used bookstores.  I had good luck in a chilly (now defunct) bookshop called Linda’s, located in a dilapidated concrete building in Dubuque. In this quasi-garage, I found a Penguin of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers, a Barbara Pym I didn’t have, even a pristine set of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, published by University of Chicago.

There used to be countless good-to-great used bookstores and there are still some:   Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha, Paperbacks and Pieces in Winona, and Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis.  I would also love to visit The Frugal Muse in Wisconsin, because of the name.

What are your favorite used bookstores?  And have you found anything untoward in the less good ones?   Bacon as bookmarks?

Why I Don’t Work in a Bookstore

Meg Ryan as a bookstore owner in “You’ve Got Mail.”

I don’t work in a bookstore. It is probably what I was meant to do.

“You’re a natural teacher,” my mother said.  Then why was I so tired?

Teachers were all tired.  As the only Latin teacher I had three preparations (most had two)  and taught five classes a day (most taught four). I went home and took a nap, or zoomed off to aerobics class to work out the tension.  And then I prepared. And then I got up at 5 a.m.to grade homework and quizzes.

Here I am teaching Ovid in the “Big Glasses” era.

According to Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a study  in 2012 called Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession found that the average teacher works 53 hours a week.   That sounds about right.

Eventually I found a more creative job with flex-time.  I enjoyed it more, but I admit I worked  on my wedding day.  “I just have to finish this up…”

Why didn’t I work in a bookstore?  Wouldn’t the hours have been more reasonable?

I love books.  I sold them without meaning to.  I would go to a bookstore, chat about books, and sometimes a bookseller would come over beaming to say I’d sold a book.

I also amused myself by doing the “first sentence test.” I read a lot of first sentences.  The first sentence test isn’t too bad, really.  And other people started reading first sentences… and I sold books that way, too.

I did work at a bookstore briefly in Iowa City when I took a year off from college.  The men got to work on the floor with the books; we women had to be cashiers.   Hard to believe it was so sexist back then, but it was.  And we women all loved books:  there was one college graduate among us, one student, another woman on a gap year, and a smart head cashier.

My copy of The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence

The good thing about working in the bookstore was that we got to borrow books. The bad thing  was that I used to buy the books.  Madness! Here is my copy of The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. It cost $12.50. I made $1.60 an hour.  I put my money back into the store!  And so I had to leave.

If I had been allowed to work with the books,  I would have stayed and had a different fate!