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Endangered Antiquarian.

A Requiem for the Old Bookshops of Europe.


One by one, like lights going out in an office building at dusk, antiquarian bookshops are dying out across Europe, but who is even aware of the implications of this decline apart from their struggling owners and that minority of dedicated bibliophiles who still valiantly support them? The redoubtable secondhand bookshop, that last haven of the fatefully handed-down tome, was once a familiar sight in every English market town, but over the previous decade or so, their numbers have plummeted. In the recent past, most English towns would have had two or more of these general antiquarian bookshops anchored in their midst, while in prime university cities, there would customarily be a glut. Today, it is common to visit a town and find the surviving bookshop your not-so-old guidebook described as in robust health is no longer there. ‘Appleby and Wiseman Books’? ‘Yes, they finally packed up about six months ago, rising rents you see…’ ‘Torrington Old Books?’ ‘Well, the old girl could not manage it anymore and there was no one to take over the business’… ‘Trowse and Son Booksellers’? They somehow kept going for a time, but it was the internet, they could not compete and then the Oxfam bookshop opened in town…took away their trade…’ Up and down the country, one hears the same mournful oratories. Only a decade ago, around five serious antiquarian bookshops were still operating in Cambridge. Now, I believe there are only two.

The book, then, is the artery, the filament not only of learnedness but of inwardly rewarding human relationships.

But wait, the glass-half-full reader will say, some have changed tack and adapted to the internet age by selling online. True enough, any bookseller today cannot rely on buyers in the shop alone. There are simply not enough casual browsers, impulsive visitors, or experienced buyers anymore. Those bookshops that exist and manage to make a living do so mainly by selling their books online and using their premises, if they still have one, as a repository, a sorting house, an archive. The books live on the shelves in their authentic habitat, within the town, on the high street, as items to be viewed and assessed before purchase or simply admired. But more often than not, the shop, having struggled on gamely for a few years like a rare plant abandoned within a garden where now voracious weeds dominate, withers then dies. The books are siphoned off to some warehouse on an industrial estate, and business is conducted from there or at the bookseller’s home. Now enslaved to the computer screen, these booksellers may survive, even prosper as specialists. Still they forfeit the unique social nourishment of the bookshop environment, the human contacts that the public space gave them, face-to-face interaction with the buyer, and their proper place at the helm within the organic presence of their collection. This space in which booksellers and book buyers exist together in the same room, both experiencing the exchange, is, in some sense, sacrosanct, the cornerstone of bookselling. The pleasure shared by the buyer and the seller at the exact moment as they discourse over the chosen book, for one the lure and the other the quarry, forms an agreeable symbiosis of conspiratorial knowingness, forging a humanistic entente cordiale. The book, then, is the artery, the filament not only of learnedness but of inwardly rewarding human relationships.

Admittedly, there are exceptions to the general decline, and often in unlikely places, such as the largely overlooked faded Victorian seaside town of Felixstowe in Suffolk, a place not yet infected by the pernicious gentrification which has eroded, with the same efficiency as the North Sea its cliffs, the authentic character of the rest of Suffolk’s coastal resorts in recent years. Here, not one but two solid and dependable antiquarian bookshops ply their trade. Occasionally too, there is a miracle; a new antiquarian bookshop may appear from nowhere. An ex-teacher, a redundant nurse, a retired solicitor, or a writer exhausted by publishing injustices espies the sunlit uplands of a life of gentle routine, sifting and sorting other people’s unwanted books, and drawn to the romantic patina that still clings to the idea of running a bookshop sallies forth. One thinks of the phenomenon of The Open Road Bookshop found in the unlikely setting of the genteel and picturesque village of Stoke-by-Nayland in Constable country. Here, regular exhibitions of art and poetry readings seem integral natural elements to the bibliophile whole, and the result is that the little bookshop punches above its weight in terms of its contribution to the social and cultural vitality of what otherwise could be a rather staid middle-class village.

For an old book has travelled for decades, perhaps even centuries, and like a ship that carries the scent of the ocean, or a tree whose crown has borne the breezes of a multitude of seasons,…

But such welcome anomalies cannot hide the blight elsewhere and, more worryingly, the future prognosis, as a significant part of a younger generation not only abandons books and printed matter as tools for reading and gaining knowledge generally, but, with the possible exception of the metropolitan lifestyle ‘book as vintage cultural object’ market, is in danger of being entirely cut off from the tradition of love for an old book, an aesthetic and spiritual feeling that defies coherent explanation. Like a stuck record I hear booksellers complain that very few if any young people enter their shop now, that this younger generation is  ‘not interested’, clamped as they are to their smartphones. Of course this also has something to do with the location of a bookshop, since those in large popular cities are more likely to attract a younger clientele. I have myself been in bookshops when younger people enter and, as if entranced by what they find, are clearly relishing the experience, yet these are a minority. But old books are not new books; they are something quite different, having in common only a spine, boards, and an interior made up of sheaves of paper. For an old book has travelled for decades, perhaps even centuries, and like a ship that carries the scent of the ocean, or a tree whose crown has borne the breezes of a multitude of seasons, the book carries the indefinable scent of the years, of whole epochs, the thoughts and musings, the gaze of those who picked it up, the shelves it rested on, the voices which enveloped it, the hands which caressed it. When an old book is picked up by fresh hands it is these elements which, by some mysterious union rendered through its worn binding and ancient paper, its frontispiece and endpapers communicate its unique aesthetic aura to the new owner.

But what of Europe? Time and again, on trips through Germany, Switzerland, France, and Belgium over the last ten years, I have found myself in one or another long-established bookshop with an often elderly owner who states that their shop too will close due to diminishing custom, the lack of a book-loving heir, or an indifferent city authority poised to reclaim the building for redevelopment. These are not overdramatized portents. In the centre of Bern, for example, I once happened upon the Antiquariat Rathaus, an old-style antiquarian bookshop, a compressed labyrinth of haphazard shelves on which the literature of Europe stood at fair prices, as well as busts of thinkers and musicians, curios and antiques. An old telephone of pre-war vintage was still affixed to the wall. But this wasn’t a manufactured exhibit, a museum of a romantic vision; it was the real thing, a time capsule that had miraculously survived. The place was pervaded by the sense of a lost world, that of an old, now-vanished Europe, inexplicably gathered into a small space here, preserved against all odds, an oasis in stasis amidst the fulminating modern city beyond.

What struck the visitor was the sense of completeness, of a fully evolved entity possessing a certain reserved authority in its authenticity, an institution of charming eccentricity that could surely never be dislodged. The white-haired owner was reserved at first, then at my approach amiable enough. Yet I sensed a mournfulness about him, as if he bore a burden. Following my effusions over his beguiling emporium, he dolefully explained that the future appeared bleak for the shop, implying he was too old, the financial situation was unsustainable, and there was no one to pass the business onto. This was a lament I had heard before, in fact only a few days before in a bookshop in the old town of Zurich, so I did not pay it so much attention.

Nothing remained, not a single book, not a vestige of anything that might signal what had once existed here.

Eighteen months later, I returned, eager to revisit the shop and reengage with the same reassuring scene, the old man behind his desk, still there naturally despite his ominous grumbles, the chaotic maze of shelves, the Mozart and Beethoven busts, the antique telephone, but when I turned the corner an altogether different sight welcomed me and I was brought up short. The shop had entirely vanished. Instead, there was a hollow, empty rectangular space, four walls, two wide arched windows, and a door, with a few sheaves of useless junk mail on the concrete floor below the letter box. Nothing remained, not a single book, not a vestige of anything that might signal what had once existed here. Facing my distraught gaze on the glass of the vacant window once opulent with old books, I saw a poster which gleefully announced: ‘Opening soon, Bern’s first tapas bar!’ Could anything better sum up the nauseous realization of being trapped In These Great Times, as the Austrian satirist author Karl Kraus had it? I later learned the owner had, in fact, died suddenly, perhaps from grief at his hopeless predicament.

In Salzburg, on the square by the cathedral, stood Buchhandlung M.Mora, the oldest and most renowned antiquarian bookshop in the city. The poet Georg Trakl (1887–1914), who in his youth lived around the corner on Waagplatz, was a regular visitor securing his literary influences there, the cherished Dostoyevsky novels and poetry of Baudelaire, Maeterlinck, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. I was lucky enough to visit this hallowed emporium in 2004 when I explored Trakl’s Salzburg for an ancillary text included in my collection To the Silenced—Selected Poems of Georg Trakl (published by Arc in 2005). The following passage is what I wrote on page 159 of that book in the section ‘Trakl in Salzburg’:

Moving from the Dom to the Residenzplatz, one passes the bookshop M.Mora, whose period frontage immediately draws one to its windows. On entering the visitor finds an interior which appears to have resisted any modernization and the aisles, shelves and stairs seem to have gathered into themselves some collective remnant of the souls who passed through here. Trakl was one of them. Living only a stone’s throw away, he was a regular visitor and many of the books which informed his later poetry were acquired here. One savours the solemn and dignified scent of long preserved wood, such as one finds in old English churches, a hint of varnish perhaps, and other materials no longer made nor known. Here, these mysterious aromatic fragrances linger on as a trapped atmosphere. Books may come and go, and the browsers change, but the bookshop remains. The cycle seems so embedded as to be entirely self-sufficient. But each time the door is opened the external world tries to storm in and the precious atmosphere perceptibly weakens.

Little did I know then when I wrote, ‘but the bookshop remains…’ how untrue that was. For on returning to Salzburg in 2011, this time around my translations of the works of Stefan Zweig, I was eager to reacquaint myself with M.Mora, which I had imagined was immune to destruction, a place surely protected by the city burghers given its historic credentials. But I had not counted on the power wielded by the agents of unbridled commercialism and their nefarious influence even here in a world-renowned heritage city. As I approached the square and looked for the familiar period frontage with its old-style mirror signboard above the door and wrought iron décor, I felt a shock pass through me. It was a sunny day, quite warm; tourists and locals were passing by with a carefree attitude, only I was rooted to the spot, for the M.Mora bookshop was, like its brother in Bern, simply no longer there. Only the building or rather the bare shell, a kind of incomplete skeleton of the original shop front, existed. I recognized it as the building, but the façade was entirely modernized and bright fluorescent lights made the interior appear unnaturally bright through the vast panes. I approached the immense pane of glass as if in a dream and saw the little pictures of houses for sale or rent neatly ranked in the window—an Estate Agent.

Mechanically I entered through a hushed swing door also made of glass, a large space of modern fitments, reeking of newness, an open plan office. Smiling representatives in suits on comfortable swivel chairs slickly turned to greet me. I walked further in, as if to my execution, upon a blond wood floor that made no sound. Then a woman asked me what I wanted. I must have babbled on about an old bookshop I loved and which they had usurped. She must have smiled her fake smile and played a long a while before initiating the silence that meant I was to leave. Before I turned away I noticed at the back the little original staircase up which I had seen the mouselike book assistant scuttling. Then it had been just one characterful organ of this still breathing body of the past that I had barely noticed, but now it stood out accusingly, reduced to an absurdity, just left there as if someone had forgotten to replace it with a modern stairway, this tolerated remnant a final humiliation, which would allow this criminal atrocity never to fade.

How could such a valuable bibliophile emporium so replete with history and literary significance be eradicated overnight and replaced with of all things an estate agent?

Deeply shaken, I turned and walked away like a mourner from a grave. How could this happen? How could such a valuable bibliophile emporium so replete with history and literary significance be eradicated overnight and replaced with of all things an estate agent? And at the epicentre of a city of culture like Salzburg with its world-famous music festival and cultural associations. I suppose it happened in exactly the same way that the long-renowned city art museum of Ostend in Belgium was needlessly, callously, expunged to make way for a gaggle of soulless designer clothes shops around the same time. Mercantile demands and the profit motive are the bulldozer before which nothing of cultural value is apparently safe. Of course this is nothing new, one thinks of John Ruskin trying to save rural English churches from destruction, of Sir John Betjeman and his battles against redevelopment, closer to our own time and many others less known. Yet there is something about this time which seems particularly grotesque in its selection of victims and its determination to win through. I later learned that the old bookshop M. Mora which had stood as a beacon for book lovers, writers, and artists for a century or more had finally closed its doors in December 2010.

The rue de Seine on Paris’s left bank was once a legendary haunt of antiquarian booksellers. One recalls a vignette from the poet Rilke, who feels a certain envy when, as flaneur, he peers through the windows of the little bookshops that line the street, imagining himself secure there, released from the perils of existentially imbued writings, sitting quietly at the back with a black cat, protected by walls of books, saved from the precarious environment of their actual creation. But then Rilke turns away, is drawn back from his reverie to the street, and the reality fate has decreed, the fate which he cannot sidestep. However, today on the rue de Seine or the rue de Mazarine, you will be hard-pressed to find a bookshop at all let alone a cozy one with a resident cat, for they have been replaced by swanky high-end art galleries at whose bright-lit minimalist rear a sharp-suited art dealer sits stiffly in a designer chair, coldly tapping away at a Mac.

Of course, despite the mass casualties, antiquarian bookshops are still hanging on elsewhere in Paris, predominantly in the streets of the 5th and 6th arrondissements near the Luxembourg Gardens, but behind the façade of permanence and tradition many are teetering on the brink. A case in point and a tragic tale was that of le Pont Traversé which stood at the corner of the longest street in Paris, the rue Vaugirard and rue Madame at the northwest corner of the Luxembourg Gardens. The shop was named after a short story by writer Jean Paulhan dating from 1921. I visited the shop several times over a number of years and found the elderly lady owner increasingly disillusioned. The last time I had only been in the shop five minutes when after a brief conversation she offered to sell me the business there and then, lamenting the extortionate rents, the gentrification of the neighbourhood once a literary mecca, and the modern public’s desire for willfully sampling the novelty of her antique surroundings but showing complete disinterest in and ignorance of her choice literary stock, ‘They come in here, these tourists, she complained, not to buy, just to look, to gawp, savouring the age of the place, indulging in the sense of another time, but then they leave without buying anything, they lend no support, they give nothing back’. It was hardly a promising sales pitch

This is sounding by now something like a refrain, but for the third time, I shall recount how I returned to Paris some years later and being in the vicinity of the Luxembourg, went to visit le Pont Traversé to see how the elderly owner I now knew as Josée Comte-Béalu was doing. At first when I arrived at the corner of the two streets, I thought I had made a mistake and this was not rue Madame and I had missed it, so I turned back, but then, finding nothing, returned to stand on the other side of the street where I created an obstacle for busy students firing like pinballs in and out of the boulangerie. Then I saw the ornate wrought iron sign, le Pont Traversé, and the heavy midnight blue frame to the corner doors, the beautiful original mirrors on either side, that beguiling portal which breathed of another age, of the former Paris even the most resigned still permit themselves to dream of, and yet this was not a bookshop, though it still stated ‘Livres’ above the door. It was a just another bistro in the fashionable well-off 6th arrondissement happening to bear that name, a bistro which had conveniently abducted it, like some casual thief who had slipped in unseen and got away with it, a predator drawn by the scent of the carcass.

In a particularly disturbing example of metamorphosis the new swish interior of the eatery could be seen through the old windows on either side of the corner entrance, where once rare books had stood in ranks and faced out to the sidewalk browser, so all seemed that much more open; the disembowelment was stark. Young women sat in a gaggle outside on the pavement having an aperitif. Did they know or care what this had once been? Were they aware President François Mitterand was a regular customer before they were even born and did it matter? Only the frontage and sign revealed what had once been. This had been retained and was giving the bistro a healthy trade, for who would not like to sit close to such craftsmanship, such vintage apparel. This time I was not so surprised at what had occurred, but still the shock was there, doubtless from the endorsement of a dread evolution. And how it seemed to me that the most noted, the most treasured, the most legendary bookshops now appeared to be those most likely to vanish, as if our nonchalance and over-confidence in their continued presence was being systematically exposed. I later found the bookshop had closed quietly on the last day of 2019 due to Madame Comte-Béalu’s final revolt against rent hikes and her inability to find that elusive person to take the shop on. If only I could have been in a position to take up her offer that day some years before and save this noble institution from extinction. And one might feasibly ask, who will be next? Perhaps the exquisite wood-lined Jousseaume in the Galerie Vivienne, purportedly the oldest bookshop in Paris whose owner at my last visit seemed less assured than previously, and whose confidence in the merits of day to day Parisian life in his quartier near the increasingly touristic Palais Royal seemed dented.

Why, in an age when we are seemingly obsessed with …restoring that which is rare and vulnerable….our  antiquarian bookshops appear to be expendable, their fate left to market forces.

My question then is why, in an age when we are seemingly obsessed with selectively preserving the past, of maintaining and restoring that which is rare and vulnerable, endangered in architectural terms, of coveting edifices such as stately homes, churches, theatres, even railway stations, our valuable long-standing antiquarian bookshops appear to be expendable, their fate left to market forces. One only has to visit one of the survivors, such as the incomparable Rothwell and Dunworth booksellers in Dulverton, Somerset, to understand the true significance of these elder statesmen of literary exchange in our cultural landscape. Such a shop, still functioning but belonging essentially to a world now extinguished, is seen as a curious aberration, a picturesque folly. It is, in truth, a precious gift miraculously left in our midst by fate and should be acknowledged as such and nurtured. But unlike a static antique, a piece of furniture, or even a vintage car polished, pampered, and left in a garage under fleece and heat lamps, it is also alive because the myriad books that line its shelves are, despite their faded livery, living entities made of a human language which, in spite of the present threat of artificial intelligence, cannot die. They trail behind them the ghost procession of their former readers. Each has become something more than they were when they were printed and lay alongside their identical fellows in a pile, ready to be shipped to the new bookshop. Now each of these books, greater or lesser travelled, has a story, a perfume and a personality, a character which has evolved from something beyond its written contents. Each of these books has found its way here from somewhere else, bearing the secrets of its journey, but together in the bookshop they take stock, prepare to begin another phase in that journey. Some may carry an inscription from a former owner, a thoughtful dedication, or perhaps just a name carefully wrought in faded violet ink of the Edwardian era. Others bear the bookplate of a proud high school which has long been reduced to rubble and whose pupils only remain as names chiseled into the gravestones of suburban cemeteries. Still others may reveal a folded letter, brown and fragile, written by a lover or a concerned friend, then from another slips a tiny postcard from Bournemouth or Clovelly, or a pressed faded alpine flower…

If the old bookshops of Europe are to survive, we must now see them in the way we see endangered wildlife threatened by human consumption and greed…

Such bookshops are nothing less than invaluable living links to the past, which, as ever, still has much to teach those who founder in the present. Above all, they should be acknowledged as vital components of our common culture, not archaic curioisities but intellectually aligned companions and educators, counsellors whose storehouse of words might guide us out of our ingrained ways of feeling and thinking. If the old bookshops of Europe are to survive, we must view them in the same way we view endangered species threatened by human consumption and greed and act accordingly. If we do not and quickly, the last survivors will soon slip beneath the waves right under our noses as the tide of cultural dissolution inexorably advances, and when it finally ebbs, their unidentified remains will be just another part of the debris field left beneath the half-submerged wreck of our epoch.

WILL STONE is a poet, essayist and literary translator who divides his time between Suffolk, Exmoor and the continent. His first poetry collection Glaciation (Salt, 2007) won the International Glen Dimplex Award award for Poetry (Dublin, Ireland) in 2008. Subsequent collections Drawing in Ash (Salt, 2011), The Sleepwalkers (Shearsman 2016) and The Slowing Ride (Shearsman 2020) have been critically appraised. A fifth collection Immortal Wreckage will be published by Shearsman in July 2024. Will’s published translations from French and German include works by Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Georg Trakl, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gérard de Nerval, Georg Simmel, Maurice Betz, Emile Verhaeren and Georges Rodenbach. Will’s latest published translations were Nietzsche in Italy by Guy de Pourtalès (Pushkin Press, 2022) and Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (Wakefield Press, 2022). Letters around a Garden, a collection of Rilke’s letters in French was published in May 2024 and Conversations with Rilke by Maurice Betz will be published by Pushkin in January 2025. Will has contributed reviews, essays, poems and translations to a number of literary and art publications including the Times Literary Supplement, the London Magazine, the Spectator, Apollo Magazine, the RA Magazine, the White Review, Irish Pages, PN Review and Poetry Review.