Browse: The World in Bookshops by Henry Hitchings (Pushkin Press, 2016)
#HayFestival Winter Weekend featured book
… I’ve just written a short story collection. It’s called Karate Chop, and now it’s out in the shops. I’m walking down Gammal Kongevej in Copenhagen. It’s winter, I think. My feet are cased in black boots, my hands have vanished into gloves, and I can see my breath before me as I step lightly through the cold. The stories have been favourably reviewed, I’m feeling proud, and on the far side of the intersection there is a bookshop. It looks small and cosy, but I’ve never been inside before. I get an urge to go into it and see if my stories are there. Across the street and into the warmth: a bell rings as I enter.
My eyes have to adjust to the dim light, but then I see the counter, and the woman is behind it. She’s not young, and her cardigan is buttoned up to her chest. I say I’m just browsing. She nods, and I walk over to the bookcase with new releases. The tip of my index finger glides affectionately past L and M, and then I come to N, where my book stands. Seeing your work on a bookshop shelf never stops being meaningful, and even though I have a crate of author’s comps standing in my flat, I still have to touch this actual copy. I take the book from the shelf, open it, thumb through it, read the jacket copy, and imagine I’m some unfamiliar customer in this bookshop, considering whether to buy this book. It’s the sort of slim book that easily disappears on a shelf. Which is to say that it’s easy to overlook, and I do so want for people to see it, to leaf through it and quicken with interest. What I do then is not to put the book back in its place. Instead, I place it facing outward on the edge of the shelf. I place it on display— on exhibit, in short, —and I smile a little shyly as I do so. It’s as if I’m showing my nakedness to strangers. It’s a silly act, but there’s something tender in it, at least I think so, and then I hurry over to another shelf. Take a book, check the price, and walk to the till with a girlish smile on my lips.
And then she stands there, the older woman behind the counter. She’s not tall, and I set the book down, saying, It’s a lovely shop. She nods. I say, Yes, I actually write a bit myself. It’s embarrassing to say it, and she doesn’t respond. I say, In fact, I was just over by the new releases to look at a book of mine. I couldn’t help but place it with the cover facing out. I laugh. One can be so nutty sometimes. And then I glance from the book the woman is putting in a little bag up to the woman’s face, and it’s severe: Have you been going and moving books around my store? she wants to know. I say, Round and round, it’s still in the N’s. She steps out from behind the counter and squeezes past me; I catch a fain whiff of lavender. Outside the shop it’s begun to snow, and the woman, clad in nylon tights, skirt and sensible shoes, is heading over to the N’s. She stands on tiptoe, grabs my book, and then stuffs it roughly back into the shelf. Do you have any idea how many authors I get scurrying through my shop? she says as she edges past me again. You all just want to be seen and touched, she says. But when you move books around, then I can’t find them again, and then I can’t sell you!
I’m upholstered from the inside out against the Scandinavian winter, and yet at the same time I’m standing there stark naked. I try to defend myself from the woman’s gaze, for she’s calling into question both my integrity and my very being. She doesn’t want to touch or be touched by me, doesn’t want to see or be seen by me. She doesn’t want to be in the same room. She says, Out of my shop. I say, What’s that? She says, You heard me. Out! I say, But you can’t just do that. She says, I can do what I want, they’re my premises.
Fortunately there’s a green man at the crossing outside. It’s snowing, and I’m leaving the scene of the crime with my little bag. I don’t make it farther than the bakery by the intersection at City Hall before I let myself cry. I don’t want to stop walking, for it’s winter; all the faces I pass are twisted in grimaces, and I go as fast I can through the park, home to my street, in the main door and up to the fifth floor: the shame.
I have a hard time getting the sobbing under control. And the anger. I walk around and sound like a kid sneering at a playmate, She can’t do that. The two of us were supposed to be playing the same game, and I thought of course she understood; but instead, I ended up making myself vulnerable, and she ended up punishing me for it. A bit of internal bleeding had occurred, a break in confidence, and when I’ve cursed my throat dry, I make up my mind that the woman in the shop on Gammel Kongevej should know, so I sit down to the computer to write:
I was in your establishment today, and you threw me out for reasons you will no doubt recall. I want to tell you about my grandmother and a man named Erichsen. He was a bookseller in Jutland. One day she stepped into his shop to buy some genre fiction to read aloud to my worn-down grandfather. But Erichsen knew his calling, and so he convinced her to buy a great work literature by Sigrid Undset, the Nobel prize-winner. My grandfather had been sent to town after some Korch, and how my grandfather reacted when she came home has not been recorded. The point it, Erichsen understood that he shaped the physical space around the encounter between reader and book. The encounter can be a delicate one, but he knew how to enter it with dignity. And curiosity, something no book can live without. In short, Erichsen was doing some cultural outreach in his bookshop, and when he died, the next person who managed the shop knew that he too should try to see his patrons as something greater than they sometimes might see themselves. He also understood that he served as literature’s outstretched hand, and that if he didn’t believe in literature, he wouldn’t be able to believe in his customers — or worse, in the intimacy between one consciousness and another. And it is the author who writes literature, and even if she might comes across as a pathetic, even laughable figure in person, she’s still the horse’s mouth. If nothing else, Erichsen respected that. I know, for there was also an old man standing in Erichsen’s Bookshop when I was young, and he pulled me over to the shelf with Jorge Luis Borges one day when I was intending to buy something frivolous—the selfsame Borges who wrote:
A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.
In Erichsen’s Bookshop, they understood that they were providing the square footage for relationships, whether potential, existing, or broken off. They understood—but do you? That it revolves around intimacy? Perhaps that’s what scared me most today: that you did know and then breached it anyway. I won’t dare set foot in your shop ever again.
Yours faithfully, etc.
I sent the letter off without hesitating, after which I walked up to the storeroom and dug Kristin Lavransdatter out of the box where I’d buried it alive. I didn’t want Erichsen to have sold out of such a thing to a potato farmer’s wife in vain.
This is an extract from Browse: The World in Bookshops, reproduced here with permission from Dorthe Nors, Henry Hitchings and Pushkin Press. To read Dorthe Nors’ story in full and other bookshop stories by writers from around the world, buy a copy of Browse published by Pushkin Press.
Browse: The World in Bookshops edited by Henry Hitchings
A cabinet of curiosities, a time machine, a treasure trove – we love bookshops because they possess a unique kind of of magic. In Browse Henry Hitchings asks fifteen writers from around the world to consider the bookshops that have shaped them; each conjures a specific time and place.
Henry Hitchings will be bringing his book on bookshops to the Town of Books this weekend. He will be interviewed by Peter Florence at the Hay Festival Winter Weekend on Sunday 27th November 2016, The Swan Ballroom, Hay-on-Wye. The event is sponsored by The Story of Books. If you haven’t already bought a ticket, click here to buy one.
To celebrate the publication of Browse, Emma Balch will be taking a photo of the book in each one of the bookshops in Hay-on-Wye. The photos will be posted to The Story of Books Facebook page and Twitter feed, and added into to this post.