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BOOKS

ARTS

as he writes his sometimes funny, always nostalgic short essays about the emotive qualities of books and why we become so attached to them – the smells, the borrowing, the memories of plots and reading locations. This might be being published in the middle of summer, but make a note now as it’s going to prove the perfect stocking-filler for book obsessives come (say it quietly) Christmas.

THERE ARE MANY BOOKS THAT EXTOL THE VIRTUES OF GREAT RETAIL

COMMUNITY SPIRIT This week’s focus is on reads which highlight the joy of indie shop-keeping By N IC BO T T OM L E Y

T

he Bath Life editor always informs me of this fine publication’s focus of the week, but often that information is uncannily synchronised with the moment that my internal guilt gauge is beginning to sky rocket because I haven’t yet given my article any thought. Even if I’m in urgent need of inspiration though, I often choose to turn a blind eye to the magazine’s spotlight which might be ‘bridal wear’ or ‘the property market’, say. No-one wants to read a column about the great estate agents in literature – that is some dark, dark reading matter and I refuse to be the one to bring it to you. This week, however, Bath Life’s principal theme cannot, and must not, be ignored. Independent retail – a subject to which I can warm without notice. There are many books that extol the virtues of great retail very directly and visually and can act as real inspiration for those thinking of setting up their own business. Take The Shopkeepers by Robert Klanten (Gestalten, £40) which offers up character studies of dozens of very different and inspiring retail businesses

thriving amidst our increasingly digital economy. Whether it’s a minimalist Berlin liquorice shop, a chi-chi lime-green Dutch reinvention of the laundromat, or a quaint treasure-trove button shop in New York, these incredible businesses are unified only by their knockout design, strong visual identities and seemingly endless supply of hipster sales assistants. There have been many great books over the years that celebrate my own favourite brand of indie shop-keeping. The most thought-provoking in recent years is Jorge Carrion’s Bookshops – a globetrotting and often very personal essay on the importance of the bookshop told through visits to legendary locations such as New York’s The Strand Bookstore and Shakespeare and Co. in Paris. (Quercus, £16.99). Even more hot off the press is Daniel Gray’s Scribbles in the Margins (Bloomsbury, £9.99) in which the joy of the browse and the sight of endless shelves (whether in store, library or carefully arranged by whatever method you choose in your own home) are just a couple of the many topics covered. Gray also moves far beyond the retail sphere

Neither of these recent efforts, though, can hold a candle to the cultural benchmark of independent bookshops; indeed of all independent retail. No, not Meg Ryan’s place in You’ve Got Mail, though you’re right, that is up there. I’m thinking of 84 Charing Cross Road (Little Brown, £7.99) or, more precisely, Messrs Marks & Co. at that address. In this classic piece of memoir, the author recounts a 20-year course of correspondence with antiquarian book-buyer Frank Doel who posts books out to Helen in New York. The book is told entirely in the transatlantic letters between the two of them as they wax lyrical about books sent, and to be sent, and the gifts that soon start flowing the other way. On one level it’s a touching story of a friendship between two people who have never met (and who wouldn’t have come across one another were it not for books) and on another it’s a homage to the power of any good shop to recommend the right book and to create community. But there’s a third angle to it as well. My colleague Ed believes 84 Charing Cross Road should be handed out in all retail establishments as required training for customer service. And he’s right. Any independent retailer who can emulate Frank Doel’s natural and entirely genuine approach – regarding each interaction as a chance to create a friendship rather than secure a customer – will be on the high street for a long time to come.

Nic Bottomley is the general manager of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, 14/15 John Street, Bath; 01225 331155; www.mrbsemporium.com

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