Michelle Paver: What I Love About Bookshops
It won’t surprise you to learn that I do actually like bookshops, rather a lot. In fact, they’re my favourite kind of shop. But WHY? Why is it that when I’m walking down an unfamiliar street and I spot a bookshop, I get a little lift of the spirits, even before I’ve looked in the window? What is it about a bookshop that I find so heartening?
For me, the best kind of bookshop has a huge range of books, and no background music, with a knowledgeable staff, who are unobtrusively there if I need to ask something. I’m thinking here of my own local bookshop, and it’s called Wimbledon Books. It’s the first shop I see when I walk into the village, and that always gives me a lift. They’ll also order anything I need that they haven’t already got, and text me when it arrives – and that’s a godsend.
But it’s the people who are, I think, what gives a good bookshop its own special, endearing atmosphere, and I don’t just mean the staff. I mean all the other people who are in the shop with me: these strangers, quietly and peacefully looking for a book. . You sometimes feel the same atmosphere in a public library, too, even if it’s a bit noisy with Story Hour for the under-fives, and despite that tableful of A Level students pretending to study while flirting with each other in such an excruciatingly self-conscious way. But it’s strongest in bookshops.
A good bookshop is a refuge. It’s away from the street’s relentless noise and hustle and BUY! BUY! BUY! It’s another world. It has an atmosphere that is both busy and yet quietly internalised. An air of concentration, of intent, of browsing, created by the one, or two, or twenty strangers who just happen to be standing or sitting about, looking at books; occasionally glancing up at a new arrival, or an interesting exchange between a customer and a bookseller, then back again, retreating back into print.
People are absorbed in a bookshop. They’re inside their heads. We don’t know each other. We’ll most likely never exchange a glance or a word. And we’re all looking for different things. Information, excitement, shared experience, novel experience, wrenching sadness, happiness, laughter, help, self-help, solace, feeling, connection, hope.
But we’re all looking for something. And we’re all seeking it here, on this particular day and at this particular time, in the printed word. Whether or not we find it isn’t the point, not to me. It’s the absorption in the printed word, those little black squiggles on paper. That’s the point. That’s why I like bookshops.
Thin Air: A Ghost Story is published by Orion Books on 6 October.