“I like bookshops,” a little girl once said to me in the middle of our own bookshop – an organised chaos of antiquarian children’s books in north London. “I like bookshops,” she declared again, grinning. “They’re houses for stories.”
Moments like that are some of my favourites, working in the book trade. Helping children discover books to fall in love with, thus helping them fall in love with reading, and feeding that love as they get older. “You should get a dragon to guard all the books when you’re not here,” a young boy once told me. “What about fire damage?” I asked. “Wouldn’t he burn the place down?” The boy raised a pointed eyebrow and sighed as though I were deeply stupid. “Duh,” he said. “You’d have to get a trained one.”
Books and bookshops are places full of nostalgia and imagination. They are full of infinite possibility, with stories itching to jump off the shelves and into our hands. I’ve always felt this. I grew up in the north east of England where there weren’t, and still aren’t, many independent bookshops. Sometimes as a family we’d go to Hill’s in Sunderland; they had a children’s section tucked away upstairs that you could lose yourself in. Later, when I moved to Edinburgh to study English Literature, I was amazed by all of the bookshops strewn across the city: Till’s, a secondhand bookshop near uni that smelled of vanilla and dust; Elvis Shakespeare – a quirky book and record shop; McNaughtan’s, run by a retired army Major; and The Edinburgh Bookshop, back then a specialist children’s bookshop, who had a bookshop dog the size of a small house and who offered me my first part-time job as a bookseller. (The bookshop owners that is, not the dog.)
Since then, I’ve worked in new and antiquarian bookshops in Edinburgh and London. In 2011, I started writing ‘Bookshop Spotlights’ over on my blog, interviewing booksellers around the world, and in 2012, my first book was published, a book called ‘Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops’ (which does exactly what it says on the tin). Writing about the odd and amusing things that get said in bookshops (there’s a lot of them!) was a lot of fun, and going on book tour meant I was able to visit fantastic bookish places – such as Wigtown in Scotland; a Book Town with a dozen bookshops all along one high street in a tiny village next to the sea.
So, whilst ‘Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops’, and its sequel ‘More Weird Things…’ (we like our literal titles), showed the bizarre-yet-charming customer side of bookselling, I also wanted to showcase the bizarre-yet-charming bookseller side – because bookshops are full of stories. Not just those on the shelves, but those hidden away – stories you’d find hard to believe. Such as the story of a stubborn man called Walter Swan who opened a bookshop in Arizona called The One Book Bookstore, where he only stocked his own book and nothing else. Then there’s a bookshop in Buenos Aires inside a huge old theatre; two in The Netherlands in converted gothic churches; a bookshop in a van that travels around Portugal; and a bookshop on a boat called The Book Barge in the UK, complete with a bookshop bunny by the name of Napoleon Bunnyparte. And that’s just the beginning. The more I researched, the more I realised that there are bookshops out there that I wanted to shout about.
So, I spoke with my editor and said I’d like to write a book about bookshops around the world. He asked me to go away and think about how I might do that and send him an outline, so I did. The Bookshop Book was born: a brief history of books and bookselling, a look at over three hundred weirdly wonderful bookshops around the world, and interviews with authors about their favourite places. I was thrilled by how many authors were willing to chat – Audrey Niffenegger told me about the bookshop she’s planning to open in Chicago; Ian Rankin admitted he turns his books face out in airport bookshops; David Almond told me about a children’s bookshop in the States which keeps chickens, and has hamsters running around under glass floorboards; Cornelia Funke said her perfect imaginary bookshop would be in the middle of a forest…
I didn’t get to travel to all of the bookshops in the book – afterall, there are over three hundred across six continents – but I did go to Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam (where I lived in a narrowboat for a few days). I spent my mornings Skyping with booksellers in Australia and Asia – then went to work at our own bookshop, did a day’s work, and came home to start Skyping with booksellers across the pond in the States. It was a pretty intense schedule, but I loved every minute. I learned about Fjaerland, a Book Town in Norway near the largest glacier in mainland Europe; I found a bookshop in Africa that also sells cows; a bookshop in Japan in the shape of a cat; and I spoke with Sebastien, a bookseller in Mongolia, who sells books to herders of the Altai mountains and Gobi desert.
The result of all this is a book with stories, photos, interviews and bookish facts: a love letter to bookshops all around the world. Travelling bookshops, tiny bookshops, bookshops in the middle of nowhere, and booksellers with a million stories to tell. Because bookshops are “houses for stories” – as that wise young girl once told me – and stories, after all, want to be heard.
The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell is published by Constable/Little, Brown on the 2nd October. Hardback.