The Quiet of Bookshops
There is a specific type of atmosphere that exists solely in bookshops: it is one of quiet. This quiet is not silence. It is a perfectly balanced concoction of patron’s thoughts and whispers as they contemplate covers and spines, it is the voices of the characters in the shelved books talking in their dialects and languages, it is the sound of the cafe grinding away in the background. Sometimes music is mixed into this quiet which can become overwhelming yet when the ratios are just right, it’s magic. All these sounds form a blanket over the shelves and aisles. It’s tangible, and this quiet encompasses the entire atmosphere. And the best part is that each bookshop has a different quiet, like a perfume of the same family that has its own unique scent. The way in which each rose in a garden smells like a rose but in its own way.
Rushing through the streets of London where the noise is at full blast with the cars driving past, and the sound of brakes and voices in different languages, the quiet that ascends as I enter a bookshop is almost startling at first. The front doors close and I stand for a moment breathing in the smell of the words on the pages and the trees the pages were before, then comes the more urgent scent of freshly made coffee and the crumbs of pastries. The noise of the outside streets dies away and is replaced entirely by this sense of quiet calm. It is a quietness that doesn’t occupy other spaces in life and I don’t always realize I’ve been missing it until I’m standing knee deep in piles of books I want to take home.
This feeling was most pronounced as I rushed into Hatchards at St. Pancras International Railway Station. The day had started off in Bruges eating another round of delicious waffles and a pot of St. James tea, followed by walks through the streets and watching leaves tumble from the overhead trees as I wrote on a bench underneath. Two trains had brought us to London, and I had an hour to visit the stores throughout the terminal before our last train of the night left. The station was a cacophony of sounds. Roller bags across the floor, train announcements, voices from every direction discussing where to eat or which terminal to enter. I hadn’t noticed the sounds until I entered the shop as moments before I had been one of those voices walking at a clipped pace. The glass door was open but as soon as I entered the sounds ceased. I was immediately overcome with a sense of calm. The clock in my head was still ticking as I mentally pulled up my book list yet that too began to calm and quiet. I was drawn to the books on the shelves and the tables with recommended reading. Hatchards at Piccadilly is one of my favorite bookshops, yet I hadn’t realized that it’s qualities translated to its other locations.
The woman at the desk was reading Lethal White, the latest in the Robert Galbraith mystery series. There was a son and mother discussing which series to pick up next. I scanned the shelves for The Book of Dust, specifically the edition with the green pages like the one I had seen on the Blackwell’s Oxford instagram page. It’s a special edition for independent shops which I have yet to track down. Still on the hunt though a train to Oxford may be required. (Blackwell’s is also a very special place located across from the Sheldonian Theatre where they’ve been selling books since 1879.) It was here that I found the 30th anniversary editions of Matilda that I had forgotten about. I stopped thinking about my list or which gifts to buy and just breathed in this aroma. Moments later we were off to the next shop but it was there, in that moment, that I was reminded of how empty the world would be without such spaces.
Bookshops are designed for the purpose of selling books but there’s more to them than merely commerce. It’s about connection, storytelling, community. It’s about the small things that a bookshop transfers to you. Like how the winding square staircase of Foyles takes you from Charing Cross Road to other worlds. I became absorbed in the world of English gardens and stories about bees, to worlds where dragons are real and sometimes fly to the moon. Or how the shelves of the London Review Bookshop have the ability to present just the book you need in that moment, stopping you dead in your tracks where moments ago you were thinking about which cake to choose from the cake shop next door.
The shelves at John Sandoe Books move. You get to be part of the process of how the shelves are arranged. Granted the booksellers have organized the shelves, yet as you browse, the shelves are on a track that can be moved from side to side. Often to reveal new books that were hidden moments before. There are horizontal shelves that line the ground. Seats hidden in the corners for when you need another moment to consider a title. And the best part is that the narrow stairs up and down the height of the store creak and move. The floors have character and give with the weight of the books and people. Can you imagine what this eighteenth building is saying if you took a moment to listen?
On an October Wednesday, the women at Persephone Books were sitting at three desks behind the small shop, talking and laughing. Their presence and enjoyment added so much life to the already charismatic store. It’s shelves are filled with books covered in the same dove gray bindings, some open to show their deliciously patterned end pages. It’s a beautiful shade of gray and when all stacked in rows, the light bounces off the editions and fills the room. Above the shelves are vintage posters and pictures. One small poster on the wall says the words, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Words we should all take to heart and practice. There’s a table across from the front door that houses the books Persephone wishes they had published. On this table sat 84, Charing Cross Road a book that has come to mean so much to me, sitting in this bookshop that has also come to mean so much, and without saying anything, perfectly summed up my love for everything that makes up both the book and store. Persephone’s gray storefront is a wonderful beacon along a brick street where people were milling about or sitting in the outdoor cafes on what was one of the warmer London days. The physical weight of the books was a comfort as we strolled to find the bus that would take us up to Hampstead Heath.
Later that day we visited Heywood Hill, a shop I had so often imagined in my head, as the presence of Nancy Mitford loomed large over my perception of the physical bookshop. I’ve primarily known Heywood Hill online as I am an avid follower of their newsletter and seasonal reading lists, and have entered their “win books for a lifetime” competition for the past two years. I had imagined a space with towering shelves and the ghost of Nancy running from room to room. Though she was probably too dignified to run, and to be honest, my knowledge of the ways and manners of the Mitford sisters is very limited. Though I do love the story about the time Nancy forgot to lock the door at the end of the night and upon arriving the next morning found patrons exchanging and recommending books to each other.
The two women and two men working the shop were putting their all into creating the shop’s seasonal reading lists and finding the perfect titles for their customers. Had I interacted more with the staff, instead of walking in circles around the room looking for a title that wasn’t there, I think I would’ve unlocked more of what the store has to offer. I could feel its quiet energy pulsing through the rooms but at that moment as I looked around for Craig Brown’s latest book about Princess Margaret, which I was hurriedly trying to find before leaving, what I actually needed was to take a breath. And perhaps more accurately, I needed to settle down my chaotic energy and get in rhythm with the shop and what it was offering to me. It was in this moment that I realized that bookshops have different mixtures of this quietness and that there’s a bookshop for every occasion, and every favorite is not right for every moment.
Up until my time in London, I hadn’t been spending much time in bookshops. I’ve been working on cutting back my book spending and making a more conscious effort to use my local library for new titles and pulling books from the piles around our apartment. These piles of books read and books to read seem to spread when I haven’t been paying much attention. Aside from my book haul from the east coast at the start of the year and simultaneously buying the last two books of the His Dark Materials series, I’ve only walked away with two other new titles this year. It was like my brain began to associate bookshops with purchasing, and by wanting to limit the quantity that I was purchasing, I stopped visiting except when I needed to buy a gift. While I did buy a book from almost every bookshop I visited in London - sometimes the perfect books would find me and I’m a sucker for those sorts of clandestine meetings - I came to realize that I loved the worlds these shops created more than I loved walking away with a new discovery. It was a world that I had been craving without realizing it.
In the hustle and bustle of day to day life, and in this past year in particular, I sometimes forget how to slow down. Even when my body stops moving, my brain keeps swirling. I’ll answer emails in my head (and then hurry to answer them for real as no one else can read my mental emails), or I’ll be going through the list of upcoming things, or the list of things that I need to do next. Or sometimes, and this is something that began when I was stressed at college and recently when I’ve been struggling with burn out and it’s more of a sign that I need to take a break, is that there will be silence. No thoughts or lists or ideas. Just silence as if the mute button has been pressed. And while it may look like I’m good at slowing down - evening baths with candles, walks, a strong tea practice, it doesn’t always mean that the internal world is taking a break. Sometimes it does but not always. Yet when I walked into these shops and wandered the pathways between the shelves, I could feel those layers of hurry, hurry, hurry start to fade away. I didn’t realize that I needed to take time to just be in the moment and be on my own time. That those moments when I closed the open browser tabs in my head were so important and something that I had been lacking. I had become used to being on all the time and thinking that was normal. Even feeling guilty sometimes when I did switch off. It was a reminder I desperately needed.
It was after visiting Foyles on a rainy October Saturday that I found myself able to read for enjoyment for the first time in months. I was excited about diving into the pages and my brain felt like it was ready for the words. Wrapped up in a blanket with the cold rainy winds outside, there was nothing else I felt like I should be doing except being there. I do wonder if that feeling of calmness and silence can be transported outside of the bookshop, or if it’s something that can only exist there. And maybe if we’re lucky, a piece of this world will find its way inside all its readers, and it will glow from within when we most need it.