Friday, November 04, 2005

the rag and bone shop of the heart

Borges once said that heaven must be a kind of library. Obviously the guy had never been to Shakespeare and Co.
It's just simply the most wonderful place in the world. It's everything a bookstore should be. It's what I imagined when I read 84 Charing Cross Road for the first time. It also reminds me, for some reason, of the sheep shop in Through the Looking-Glass. It's tiny, crammed with with every concievable kind of book, spilling out into the street. Used books are for sale on the sidewalk in front. Behind them is a kind of chalkboard sign with what seems to be George Whitman's (yes, that Whitman's descendant) personal manifesto; he describes himself as a "frustrated novelist" and says the rooms in Shakespeare and Co. are like chapters in a novel. If so, it's one of those dense novels with multiple, serpentine plots. Like any bookstore, the books are categorized by genre; but they kind of blend and merge together. You start looking at travel books and find yourself in the poetry section, which shifts to biography which flows into fiction. When you walk in the front door you're just met with a sea of books. I wouldn't be surprised if they manage to find a way to shelve books on the ceiling. There are quotes written everywhere, on the shelves, the walls, the steps, as if there were so many words the books couldn't contain them all. LIVE FOR HUMANITY and BE NOT INHOSPITABLE TO STRANGERS LEST THEY BE ANGELS IN DISGUISE. The staircase confesses I MUST LAY DOWN WHERE ALL THE LADDERS START, IN THE FOUL RAG AND BONE SHOP OF THE HEART. Upstairs is the "Mirror of Love", plastered with notes and messages from visitors (I left that bit about Borges, I'm very proud of it). There's a tiny cabinet-like space with a typewriter and instructions to leave your name, location, etc. There's a window overlooking the Seine; there are cots with blankets, a cluttered table with a stuffed bird in a cage, a chess set, and of course more books. There are sleeping cats, as every good bookstore should have. The second floor has children's books for sale, but the rest of it is a free lending library (so maybe Borges is right after all).
I was kind of overwhelmed, honestly, between the shop itself and the prospect of so many English language books. Luckily the sight of a girl with a precarious tower of books tumbling out of her arms is fairly common there. I had to go back a second time just to appreciate it fully, and to take pictures. Here's what I walked away with, in the end:
  • The Rattlebag, a fat collection of poetry edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes
  • The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, by one of my favorite writers, A.S. Byatt
  • a fifty year old edition of the entire Forsyte Saga in one volume. I figure that ought to keep me busy a good long while
  • two volumes of Wendy Cope's poetry: If I Don't Know and Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis
  • Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (Orlando and The Years sit at home, alas)
  • Written on the Body, which the girl at the sales desk gave to me for cheap. She was appalled that I'd never read Jeanette Winterson.

Which doesn't look like a lot but it cost a pretty penny, and besides I had to shlep it all back to Verdun. I asked the girl at the register (a lovely Brit) how she managed to get a job like that. She said she just walked in and applied and got lucky, which seems too prosaic for such an incredible place.

5 Comments:

At 1:17 PM, Anonymous Kevin said...

Reminds me of a bookshop I read about in Lonely Planet (may be the same shop) where you can sleep on a ratty mattress upstairs for reciting your own literary works for the other patrons.

 
At 5:33 AM, Blogger Hush said...

I'm surprised you've never read Jeanette Winterson!!!! She can be quite hard to read. Written on the Body is one of her better books, or so I've heard. I've only ever read Oranges are Not the Only Fruit.

Oh, and the town where Robbie Williams comes from is up North but I'm from London, everything is up North to us ;-)

 
At 7:37 AM, Blogger Andygrrl said...

LOL, yeah I'm looking forward to Winterson. And Kim's accent sounds pretty Northern to these American ears, pronounces all her Os like Us, "bruther", "muther", etc.

 
At 8:19 AM, Blogger Winter said...

Wow sounds amazing. I can't believe you haven't read any Winterson yet. Sometimes I wish I hadn't read them actually, so then I could start fresh all over again. The Passion is my personal favourite, but I love Written on the Body too. Glad you've got yourself some poetry now.

 
At 7:08 AM, Blogger FemiKnitMafia said...

Add my voice to the international sound of shock - you haven't read Winterson? My fav is Written on the Body, but beware. You'll fall in love with her and her other books don't quite live up to WOTB's standard. Enjoy!

 

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