Book Serendipities

The joys of bookshops.

Posted by Manjil Saikia on June 06, 2022

One of the first places we visited in Wales (after we shifted to Cardiff) was Hay-on-Wye, the world’s first booktown. It is a magical place for any bibliophile, and I have enjoyed my visits to Hay-on-Wye quite a lot. So, when we decided to visit Scotland over the Easter break this year, I thought it would be great to visit Wigtown, Scotland’s own booktown. But without a car it was quite difficult to do a day-trip, so I decided to skip Wigtown on this visit. One of the main reasons of wanting to visit Wigtown was to visit The Bookshop, the main attraction for book-lovers and the largest second hand bookseller in Scotland.

I had seen Shaun Bythell’s (the owner of the shop) diaries of a bookseller in several bookstores before planning this trip. Somehow I never bought a copy because I didn’t think I would enjoy reading a diary. Since the plan to visit Wigtown was cancelled I did pick up Bythell’s book, in Thistle Books, Glasgow to experience a bit of the town on its pages. Once I started to read, I couldn’t stop and enjoyed every bit of the book. The book had one very huge impact on my habits, I have since decided to not buy any book directly from Amazon (other sellers there are fine, so far). Shaun explains in his inimitable style about how Amazon is cutting into the margins of booksellers everywhere. Although I knew about this but it didn’t hit me hard until I had read Shaun’s book.

The advantages of visiting a bookshop can hardly be exaggerated for bibliophiles. Over the last few years I have discovered several genres of books which I would not have normally read if I had not seen the books in a brick-and-mortar shop. That is reason enough to like them, but sometimes serendipities work which makes them seem even more appealing. I have had several such instances in the past few weeks itself. Let me describe two of them.

I am quite interested in reading about Vienna (since 2015, I lived there for four very beautiful years), and one book which is on my to-read list is Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. I haven’t thought about this for a long time, but on a recent visit to Waterstones in Cardiff, while browsing the WWII section (another of my interests) I came across a selection of essays that Roth wrote after he left Austria, titled On the End of the World. I am now looking forward to reading this collection, something which I would never have known existed if I had not visited a bookstore.

A recent book I read was Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, where he mentions an unpublished novel written by his mother Elisabeth de Waal about a visit to Vienna after WWII was over. Edmund’s book was published in 2010 and so I assumed the novel was never published and did not look for it, even though the subject seemed quite interesting to me. On a recent visit to Bath, I took a friend to Persephone Books who mainly publishes old out-of-print books by female authors. Since, I have visited the store earlier, I decided to sit outside the entrance and look at their Biannually which lists all of their publications. While I was skimming through the pages I noticed the surname de Waal, and immediately stopped to look at what it said. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the book mentioned by Edmund was published by Persephone Books in 2013. The title is The Exiles Return and without wasting another second I went in and purchased my own copy.

These were two very happy moments for me, which just goes on to show the importance of a good bookstore.