Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Bookshops of Dublin (1)

Samuel Johnson famously said that "There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn". I think that is still true, two centuries later.

But there are some things that produce almost as much happiness as a good tavern or inn, and I think that bookshops are pretty high up in that list.

Who doesn't love a bookshop? I mean a good bookshop, of course. There are bookshops that are depressing beyond words. But most bookshops have something to endear them.

I have thought a lot about the appeal of bookshops. It doesn't come down to any single point, of course, but I think that-- for me-- the main point is that life seems so interesting when you are standing in a bookshop. You go from shelf to shelf, glancing at the titles on the spines. You see The Fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, A Short History of Hats, and Recollections of a London Bus Conductor. You take down a collection of poems entitled The Faces in the Flames, or Symphony in Aquamarine, or The Torchlight under the Blankets. The cover shows a blurry picture of a hearth fire, or a grainy old photograph of a crowded street, or a drawing of a little girl sitting in a wicker seat. You think, Books have been written about everything. Poems have been written about everything. Any amount of wonderful poems could be written about the sunlight falling on that wall, opposite me, right now. Nothing ever happens that isn't dripping with meaning and significance.

When you walk down a street, or sit in a room, or look out a window, the world can seem like a chaotic flux, a blur of arbitrary and boring occurences, "a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing". But when you stand in a bookshop, you feel reassured. Life has meaning, and dramatic interest, and purpose, and potential. If it ever seems otherwise-- well, you just haven't read enough books.

Dandelion Books

"There's not a joy the world can give like that it takes away", wrote Byron, and in the case of Dublin bookshops, it's true. The best Dublin bookshop I ever knew is, unfortunately, a fading memory. I spent untold hours there in my college years. It was Dandelion Books in Aungier Street and it was everything a great bookshop should be. First off, it was a second-hand bookshop (or a used bookstore, as Americans would say.) I think a truly great bookshop has to at least have a second-hand section, but Dandelion Books was (if I remember correctly) all secondhand. It was pervaded with a faint and intoxicating scent of dust. The shelves reached right to the ceiling. Importantly, it catered to every "brow"-- lowbrow, middle-brow, and high-brow. (The only thing worse than a bookshop that only sells Jilly Cooper-type books is a bookshop that only sells James Joyce-type books.) There were shelves and shelves of science-fiction, fantasy and horror novels. (I remember hearing a staff member remark, to another customer, that "If I had my way, the Bible would be on the science fiction shelves".) But it also had shelves of thrillingly scholarly-looking books. I suspect my imagination has magnified them in retrospect-- I think back and I see thick volumes, so huge they would have to be held in two hands, about the European Common Market and Vietnam and political philosophy, lurking on the upper shelves, their titles printed in uncompromising Times New Roman.

The aisles in Dandelion Books were very narrow, and I think this also makes for a good bookshop-- the customer should feel that she (there's a sop to the feminists) is in a labyrinth of books. It gives it an exciting, secret-cavern kind of feeling. The shop also had a large, circular, convex mirror in one upper corner, and (now that I come to think of it), this seemed symbolic to my mind-- since books have always seemed to me like a reflection of reality, but a magical reflection that heightens reality, just as the reflections in that circular mirror were elongated and faraway.

Best of all, Dandelion Books usually-- or perhaps always-- had BBC Radio 4 playing on the radio. Readers from America may not know BBC Radio 4. Just imagine two English people with plummy, donnish accents talking about Schopenhauer or the Normandy landings or Greek drama. That's an idealized version of BBC Radio 4, but it's not too far off from the reality, at its best moments. In terms of the atmosphere it gave the bookshop, this radio station was the aural equivalent of a fat cat lying curled up in front of the fireplace. It only seemed to deepen the silence, only seemed to intensify the sense of timelessness-- the voices were so leisurely and detached, the tones so somnolent.

The Secret Book and Record Shop

How I miss Dandelion Books. It closed without me noticing, but it must be gone at least seven or eight years now. Apparently The Secret Book and Record Shop on Wicklow Street is its successor (whatever that means-- I read it just now on the internet, when trying to find out what happened to Dandelion Books). This is a bookshop that strains with every fibre of its being to be cosy, atmospheric, pleasantly shabby, and everything a second-hand bookshop should be. Maybe I am unfair to it (who can really judge atmosphere?), but it only seems trendy and hipster-ish to me-- from the period postcards and bric-a-brac lined along the top of the shelves to the newspaper cuttings advertising various "gigs" and poetry readings and whatnot. The biggest difference between The Secret Book and Record Shop and a proper secondhand bookshop is the intrusion of popular music-- specifically, the rather hippy-ish music that this shop seems to specialise in. The mere sight of a psychedelic album cover seems to explode the whole leisurely, dreamy atmosphere that a second-hand bookshop should aspire to.

Besides, I've never found anything really good in The Secret Book and Record Ship. Whatever magic dust hangs on the shelves of the best second-hand bookshops was never sprinkled there.

But my subject has taken a hold of me, and I prattle on at more length than I intended. I am going to cut myself off here, and resume my survey of Dublin bookshops in future posts-- I hope.

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