Bookshops are my happy place.
Nothing delights me more than perusing shelves, reading title after title, pausing to select the ones that intrigue me, to examine covers and read opening sentences, feeling the weight of the stories they contain, taking a moment to appreciate the work that’s gone into each and every edition.
Bookshops are my panacea, the mysterious elixir with the power to uplift, intrigue, excite and reassure. There’s nothing like the familiar sight of rows and rows of Penguin classics to settle my anxious mind.
I’m not fussy about which bookshops I visit. I’ll happily pop into a Waterstones and browse the latest releases, always stopping to read the staff recommendations. Yet, there’s something magical about an independent bookshop – an unpredictability to the titles on offer that’s wonderfully seductive.
Considering all of the above, it may sound strange that, until recently, I didn’t have a favourite London bookshop. When pressed, I would probably have said Foyles; the flagship store on Charing Cross Road has eight levels packed with every conceivable genre and includes a large audiobook and DVD section, as well as a cafe. It’s a very welcoming environment, regularly hosting readings and other events, and I’ve spent many happy hours exploring the various floors.
And yet, there’s something a little too slick about Foyles that prevents me from becoming emotionally attached in the way I have to some of the world’s most famous bookshops, like the Strand Bookstore in New York City and Shakespeare & Co in Paris. So, yesterday, I went looking for the London equivalent. I found it in Persephone Books.
Founded in 1998 by Nicola Beauman, Persephone Books is both an independent publishing house and a shop based on Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury (although they also sell online). The concept is simple; Persephone publish and sell ‘lost’ and out-of-print fiction and non-fiction books, mostly by women writing in the mid-twentieth century. Each book is printed with the same plain grey jacket, with an array of gorgeous, vibrant endpapers and sold with a matching bookmark.
The shop is small but lovely, with the soothing grey covers stacked on shelves and arranged on antique wooden tables decorated with bunches of sunflowers in colourful vases. They also sell an array of other products, including patterned pottery and journals in terracotta and turquoise.
Each book is accompanied by a printed notecard giving a brief overview of the history and a hint at the stories contained within the minimal packaging. These notecards also include helpful and humorous hints to the reader, such as in the case of Good Food on the Aga by Ambrose Heath, where the accompanying card states wryly that an Aga isn’t actually necessary for the recipes. The staff are friendly, knowledgeable and clearly passionate about the stories they’re selling. I had the sense that the woman who served me would have happily talked me through each of their books one by one and, if I’d had the time, I would have listened eagerly.
Persephone Books is a must-visit for any bibliophile, feminist or vaguely curious reader in London. While you won’t find the latest Sunday Times bestseller on their shelves, the plain covers create a delicious sense of mystery, inviting you to take your time and look a little more closely. I could have lingered amongst the books for hours.