When I travel, I am drawn to bookshops, a practice that threatens to weigh down my baggage and raise eyebrows in TSA lines. So when I visited Foyles in London a few weeks back I limited myself to two smallish volumes: a handsome compact Penguin Great Gatsby anda signed edition of Milkman, Irish writer Anna Burns’s recent Man Booker prize winner.
On that same trip I also visited Italy and in Rome I was intrigued by a Google search of English language dealers by one called The Almost Corner Bookshop, so after a day in Vatican City and a rip-off 50 Euro cab ride (We found out it should have cost about 12) my wife and I arrived at this gem within the chic Trastevere neighborhood.
Dermot O’Connell, a friendly Irish immigrant, took over the neatly maintained shop in 2002 after it had moved to 45 Via Del Moro from down the street where it was appropriately called The Corner Bookshop. The window of this compact and well-organized shop is as inviting to a booklover as a candy store to a toddler. When I visited, Mr. O’Connell was behind his desk near the window talking to an American art history student.
The shop leans toward literature and art and architecture. At a center table center could be found Cathedrals and Churches of Europe by Barbara Borngasser, Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems, a New Directions anthology; an intriguing but out of the question 1,100-page House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Y Slezkine; and Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome by Shawn Levy (I made a note to find this when I got back home). I bought a slim copy of Georg Simmel’s The Art of the City: Rome, Florence, Venice—the three cities we would visit on this trip.
As we were leaving the shop the book dealer was kind enough to explain how to catch a bus back to our hotel, which for one Euro took some of the sting out of our taxi mishap.
This time around I didn’t get around to visiting the Open Door or Anglo American bookshops, both of which get high marks on social media.
While in Venice, I happened on bookshop that was two bridges and a narrow passageway away from our hotel. What first attracted to me to the Libreria Acqua Alta was a crowd gathered at the entrance on a weekday in October, significantly just a few days before historic floods hit the city.
The name of the shop in English is The High Water Bookshop and for protection against the i
nevitable rising tides, owner Luigi Frizzo stacks books in bathtubs, gondolas, bathtubs, and stilted shelves. There are books in many languages here, mostly new but many obscure older titles, and it is a delight to browse and take a book out to a seating area overlooking the water. The day I was there the shop was packed with tourists and young Italians searching through the stacks. They weren’t there just for the novelty. They were clearly readers.
Across the continent, we ended this trip in London where I first visited Charing Cross Road nearly 40 years ago when it was known as the Street of Bookshops.
Most of the shops, including Marks and Co., made famous by the book and movie 84 Charing Cross Road, are long gone, but thankfully the venerable Foyles still anchors the street with six stories of books and café with very good coffee and pastries and strong wifi for those who choose to linger over laptops and IPads.
This is a store that you can get lost in for hours and still only cover a floor or two. It is said to contain more than 200,000 titles in 37,000 square feet of space. When it moved a few years ago from its original home down the street, it took along 500,000 books.
Foyles was in the same family for more than a century, but a few weeks ago it was announced that it would be sold to Wellstones, a much bigger retailer, with shops throughout the island. This of course isn’t a sign of strength but further evidence of the slow strangulation of book retailers by the Amazon octopus that is spreading its tentacles throughout the world. I wondered how many browsers surrounding me that day knew in their hearts that their beloved store was marked for death.
Two blocks away from Foyles, Francis Edwards Antiquarian Booksellers has been in business since 1855. Graham Greene called Francis Edwards the “Rock of Gibraltar among English bookshops,” but needless to say with the advent of e-commerce that rock is crumbling. Shoring up its losses, since 2010 Quinto Books has occupied the basement of Francis Edwards.
And while the main floor is dedicated to rare and antiquarian travel, military, literature, art and natural history, Quinto features more esoteric works of Gothic literature and titles like Kafka, Gothic and Fairytale and the Penguin anthology of Twentieth Century German Verse and De Quincy’s Gothic Masquerade. Venturing down Quinto’s narrow and steep wooden staircase isn’t for sissies. It reminded me of the stairs going down to the basement in Ferlinghetti’s City Lights.
A few doors away, still on Charing Cross, is Henry Pordes Books where a signed copy of Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant beckoned me from the front window. I asked the owner if I could look at it and he handed it to me with a smile and said, “It’s a rarity. He doesn’t sign a lot of books.”
The price was 105 pounds or nearly 150 dollars. I sneakily looked it up on Abebooks and saw that it was actually available for half the price. Such is the bane of booksellers. I didn’t buy it, but I walked away thinking that if I bought it online I would be ultimately guilty if I were to find Henry Pordes shuttered next time I visit London.
An essay by anthropologist Loren Eiseley, “The Brown Wasps,” always resonated with me, perhaps because for much of my youth my father was in the military service and the family was continually uprooted. Impermanence was a way of life. In the essay, Eiseley paid a visit to his childhood home, which was imbued with an image that he had held for years of a cottonwood tree that as a boy he had planted with his taciturn father.
As he took the train and then a cab to the old address the image of the tree and of his father grew large in his mind. But when he got there he found that the tree was gone. Had it died? How long ago? It was as if his departed father and his younger self had been erased while the image still loomed large in his mind.
This story was brought back to mind in London. A Google search would have cleared this up, but I wanted to see how many used bookshops were still to be found there, and I particularly wanted to look for Marks and Co. The shop had been enshrined in Helene Hanff’s wistful memoir 84 Charing Cross Road, which centered around letters exchanged between the New Yorker and a clerk at the shop who found rare histories for her over several years after World War II.
I had recalled that the shop had closed but wondered what had replaced it. Not too surprisingly it had become a MacDonald’s restaurant. A small brass plaque outside commemorated the shuttered shop. Like Eiseley’s tree it survived only in the imagination.
I had always thought Westwood Books near UCLA was the measure of comprehensive bookstores for readers in the liberal arts. Its demise marked for me the beginning of the end of bookstores in Los Angeles. The death knoll was later to ring for Pickwick, Duttons, Brentanos, then and on and on.
Then the used bookshops also retreated, some of them moving into the ethernet, others into oblivion. The saddest story I have heard was that a favorite bookshop up the coast in San Luis Obispo had most of its stock moved away in dumpsters.
Now Amazon’s Abe books undercuts the antiquarian and used books shops that have long since retreated to garages and storage units.
Are books themselves fated to be among those things that are mostly missed when they are gone?
It was an apropos moment to be pondering the power of stories—October 2018, campaign-for-life-or-death-of-democracy time in America. Cummins, best known for her visual art, was in the midst of a performance piece of sorts.
For most of the month, she sat behind a bay window of a restaurant in Saugerties, NY, part of the Hudson Valley town’s second annual Shout Out Saugerties festival. Here the artist was the installation, there for passersby on the old-fashioned main street to watch. She kept her back to the window, but the accoutrements made the mission clear: Cummins was writing a memoir about her own family’s stories.
Sometimes she pounded on an old manual Smith-Corona, sometimes on a laptop, at a battered table full of carvings from previous owners. (“It’s from another era, when people wrote letters. I could go on a tirade about the loss of letter writing.”) Stacks of research books were piled up around the window. Above her, Cummins had strung scraps of paper and envelopes containing quotes she’d written down over the years.
To her left was a quote from Elie Wiesel flapping ever so slightly on the line: “He who hears a witness becomes a witness.”
Cummins was working on a book about the stories behind some of her own family secrets, while symbolically offering a transparent look at the writer. The poet and performance artist Mikhail Horowitz, a Saugerties resident, pointed out that she was operating within a noble tradition: “think of Scheherazade, or Cervantes, or Calvino.”
While Cummins wasn’t ready to reveal all, suffice to say she intends for the book to be a “resettling of accounts” about her life growing up on Staten Island and her mother’s story. The restaurant, the Pig Grill and Bar, didn’t open until 5:00, and Cummins was there only from 10:00 to 3:00, six days a week (Sundays off), but anyone could knock on the window or the glass door and add themselves to her public statement.
A sign in the window said: “As part of her ongoing exploration of the power of narrative to shape our lived reality, Cummins will be collecting stories about stories. If you have a story about the way in which some shared, discovered, or falsified story impacted your life, family, relationships, or sense of the world, and are willing to be recorded, either anonymously or for the record, please knock on the window to make an appointment.”
Her work has largely centered around other people’s stories, in fact. Now 55, Cummins has a body of prints, works-on-paper and limited-edition artist’s books that are held in more than 100 public collections around the world, including National Gallery of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Getty Museum in LA, the Brooklyn Museum, Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, the Library of Congress, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
The artist’s books are particularly evocative of how she views the power of stories. She creates them out of found texts and images that tell stories of short, persecuted, largely invisible lives—narratives about slaves; letters and ledgers pertaining to the business of slave ownership; a love affair between Jules, a teacher, and Ben, “an aristocratic boy” from 1906-09; a tale of native American displacement in the Oregon territory; physicians’ assessments of 19th century mental hospital patients; records from the Salem Witch Trials (a collaboration with poet Nicole Cooley). In recent months she’s also been working with refugees from Syria and other war and strife-torn countries.
Saugerties itself is a place that, on the surface, bears a passing resemblance to the small-town America that existed only in Frank Capra movies and old children’s storybooks where everyone was white and named Smith or Jones. The Pig Grill and Bar is nestled in a 19th century building downtown, and like other edifices on the block sports the pentimento from its first life, when it was the home of “I. Lazarus Clothier.” Twelve miles east of its hippie-glam twin town, Woodstock, Saugerties has in the past couple of decades become a recipient of Woodstock’s overflow of artists, musicians, galleries, yoga studios, locavore cafes, and city dwellers in search of affordable weekend real estate (full disclosure; I’m one of those)
In Saturday traffic you might see a Prius with a bumper sticker that says “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” come close to colliding with a pickup truck emblazoned with “Make America great again” decals. I know a left-wing poet who hikes mountain trails with a right-wing roofer. All over the Hudson Valley, there are those of us who like to imagine that art can transform the region in an egalitarian way.
But Saugerties is a bashful village, and the Shout Out festival, the brainchild of theater director Suzanne Bennett, has been a kind of coming out party, a festival of art, music and poetry in keeping with the quirky and contemplative nature that is becoming part of the town’s new identity.
It was a time of hope for the liberal invaders; Democrat and Rhodes Scholar Antonio Delgado, whose mother-in-law owns a liquor store in Saugerties was running in a nail-bitingly tight race for the 19th District Congressional seat against freshman GOP incumbent John Faso, a supporter of all things Trump.
Could this area elect a man of color whose opponent kept pointing to his brief stint as a rapper? It was also a time of defeat; the Brett Kavanaugh hearings wrapped up with his confirmation just before the festival began. And a time of grief around the village; just days before the festival opened, Bennett’s wife, photographer, Bard Summer Scape Opera producer, and Shout Out Saugerties organizer Susana Meyer, died of lung cancer.
Every story is a swirl with no fixed ending until a storyteller plots it out.
Delgado won the election, and soon he’ll face Washington.
The first couple of weeks, passersby watched Cummins but no one knocked. Then, gradually, they did. She hasn’t determined exactly what she’ll do with the stories, which she calls “amazing,” but says in the end, the experience reinforced her view that the very act of telling one’s life story carries political weight. There was a time when only the famous and powerful published memoirs, after all.
“Perhaps the most satisfying thing, especially given that the Kavanaugh hearing happened after I planned the project, was that I had the opportunity of creating this image, of a woman in public view, sitting at a writing desk and telling her story,” Cummins says in retrospect. “I keep thinking of a Muriel Rukeyser quote: ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.’"
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