About 10 years ago, being a keen but financially constrained reader as well something of a book hoarder, I began to dabble in online bookselling, selling off unwanted volumes through sites such as eBay and the sadly now-defunct Green Metropolis. Having made a little money doing so, I started to ponder the possibility of extending my involvement in the trade. If only I could find a mentor to teach me the ropes properly …
The narrator of my novel The Pale Ones makes money from selling books found in rundown charity shops. While out trawling the shelves he runs into Harris, another bookman, both strange and oddly familiar, who soon begins to offer all manner of unsought advice.
As the subject of fiction, booksellers, bookshops and even book dealers have an obvious appeal: they are bound up intimately with the desired object of the book lover. Even so, the portrayals vary immensely – just as books themselves range from priceless incunabula through to rapidly discarded airport fiction. The bookseller is as likely to be a figure of quotidian routine as an amoral grotesque, and both are fictional possibilities that have borne remarkable fruit.
Despite this variety, there exists in the books I’ve chosen below a distinct stress on the dark, the fantastic, the weird. The bookseller frequently serves as a threshold figure, stationed at the gateway to extravagant adventure, or to meta-fictional conceit – or both.
1. The Dumas Club by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Pérez-Reverte’s novel takes the reader on a deft, twisted ride through a Europe rife with literary treasures and their scheming collectors. The pithy glosses on various aspects of the antiquarian book world would make the novel a worthwhile read on their own. But we are spoiled here for booksellers – with both Lucas Corso (book “mercenary” and the novel’s protagonist) and his sinister client, a wealthy and rather unpleasant dealer, requiring authentication of a decidedly sulphurous old volume. And, as the title’s allusion to Dumas suggests, that’s really only half of the story …
2. The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
In contrast to Corso, Florence Green, the proprietor of Penelope Fitzgerald’s eponymous concern, leads a quiet, modest life. But will her stoicism and resilience prove sufficient to overcome the obstacles ranged against her, from the salt dampness of her premises to the antagonistic attentions of the local grandee and the presence of the “rapper” haunting her premises?
3. White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings by Iain Sinclair
“Iain Sinclair is a bookdealer.” Thus begins the (outdated) author biog at the front of my rather aged copy of this title. Sinclair’s insider knowledge of the now-decimated secondhand trade permeates his novel: the passages describing the dealers and their shabby stock read as simultaneously unreal and utterly convincing. This is ecstatic, grimy prose, full of vivid, caustic detail of bookseller tribes – from the Scufflers fighting over sales-table pitches to the Outpatients steaming labels and sanding publisher stamps from the page edges. Is this level of crazed detail a stylised, Beat-influenced exaggeration? That doesn’t seem so important when writing sings like this.
4. The Small Hand by Susan Hill
Our aptly named narrator, Adam Snow, is something of a blank. Book-dealing takes him around the globe, from Japan to the US to a remote French monastery. Yet on a visit to a client much closer to home, he stumbles across an odd, untended garden. There he experiences a peculiar sensation – a tiny, invisible hand taking his own. Hill’s story escalates chillingly as some of Snow’s blanks are filled out.
5. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Ruiz Zafón’s sprawling fictional sequence, the Cemetery of Lost Books, takes its central motif from another type of book repository – the library. The first published instalment, The Shadow of the Wind, introduces Daniel Sempere who runs a bookshop with his father. Daniel’s narration guides us into an intricate plot where books and history collide with the present moment.
6. Climbers by M John Harrison
The Manchester bookshop in Climbers (“by reason of its own guilt … tucked away in the blackened labyrinth south of Tib Street”), crops up slightly altered elsewhere in Harrison’s fiction, most notably the short story Egnaro. But the shop isn’t the only bookseller in this entry. There’s also Pauline, a dealer working the Camden Lock market in London, to whom our narrator is married for a time, and who initially seems to be defined as much by the titles she trades and reads as by anything else. Harrison’s peculiar magic is to make what we glimpse in the spaces between the lines as powerful as his precise, lucid prose.
7. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
Ende’s story starts in the same place it ends – the bookshop of Carl Conrad Coreander, into which schoolboy Bastian Balthazar Bux bursts while fleeing some bullies. A printed image precedes the book’s actual text: the bookseller’s name inscribed on a glass door, only reversed – as though you, the reader, are already inside the shop. Thus begins a paean to the delights and benefits of reading, the intertwined possibilities of escape and transformation.
8. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
In a sense, this novel is the sophisticated, grown-up twin to Ende’s somewhat didactic book. And just as Coreander’s shop functions as a portal to the fantastic, so too the bookseller here serves as an usher into another realm – that of meta-fictional fabulation. The second-person narration describes how you return your copy of Calvino’s novel to the bookshop where you bought it, convinced of a printing error. While there, you meet Ludmilla, who by chance, is returning her copy for the same reason. But that is really only the start of it …
9. Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel
Bechdel honed her comic-art chops on this serialised strip (The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, a collected edition, is published by Jonathan Cape). A key initial setting is Madwimmin Books, an archetypally leftish, feminist-lesbian bookshop. Later developments see some of the cast employed at Bounders Books and Music. Although perhaps Dykes doesn’t feature quite the condensed artistry of a book like Bechdel’s Fun Home, her skill is still evident here in the breezy, efficient storytelling and all-round smarts. Most importantly though – for this list, at least – it also has reams of bookshop-related humour.
10. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé
The Good Novel, a Parisian book shop, is owned by serious book lovers: the type to go on a bit about their passion. Someone, though, is knocking off the members of the shop’s book selection committee. Reader manifestos, tricksy narration, a dash of mystery, somewhat surreal plotting – Cossé stacks her novel full of the delights of sophisticated writing.