I am not a shopper. Unless you count stationery shops and bookstores. But in my lexicon they don’t count as shops – they’re necessities.
One of the tragedies of our digital life is the disappearance of those wonderful bookshops tucked into a high street – you know the one, down the road from the butcher and wedged between the greengrocer and ironmonger. I, like most, have been known to use that convenient monolith that sends consumer products anywhere, anytime. However, each time I do a twinge of guilt shivers down my back for the bookseller who knows not only books but his or her customer. It is an art, a calling, and so much more pleasant than a nameless, faceless transaction or click.
That wonderful sense of new worlds and new words lining the shelves is missing. Hours spent browsing, then the excitement of finding the perfect book, or books.
Like most readers I have a pile next to the bed of ‘to be reads’ – it might take me a few months to get to them but get to them I do. Sometimes one just has to be in the right frame of mind for a book. During COVID I have strayed from books that would make me yearn to travel again – so stories from places never visited have been kept at bay. It made me sad.
Now the world, well most of it, is learning to live with the scourge of COVID and countries are starting to lift barriers, my curiosity is resurfacing. I want to read about Bhutan, about Poland, about Mali, as well as learn more about places I have been fortunate enough to visit.
I was in Trinidad last week – a place I once lived – but this time staying with my daughter, Kate, and her family. One Sunday we drove to places old and new to me.
From the capital, Port of Spain we headed east to where Trinidad’s coast stops the Atlantic Ocean in a thunder of waves, and the beach is lined with miles and miles of coconut trees. More than a thousand one of my granddaughters assured me. Mayaro, back in 1984, was my first foray away from San Fernando where we lived, and the first time Kate wriggled her toes in sand. Back then there was an occasional hut selling watermelon or pineapples. Now along the Manzanilla / Mayaro road there are many more, and nestled between them is the littlest bookshop in the country, perhaps in the Caribbean.
Started by Mr Ishmael Samad, The Book Junkie is one of those wonderful whimsical surprises that we come across every now and then. Philosophy and fiction jostle for space on rickety shelves. Literature and beach reads reach precariously for the corrugated roof. Leaning against each other on a low shelf are Enid Blyton and Carolyn Keene, the pseudonym used by the collective authors of the Nancy Drew detective stories, and which tempt younger readers, including my granddaughters.
On the outside shelf under Graham Greene and Clive Cussler, in somewhat faded glory, was Bruce Chatwin’s Photographs and Notebooks, published after his death in 1989. A wonderful reminder of the joy of travel, of curiosity for new customs and cultures and, for a Nowherian like me – a phrase coined by the St Lucian poet, Derek Walcott – a reminder of Chatwin’s telling essay, Anatomy of Restlessness. A feeling to which most global nomads fall prey.
That restlessness is what stopped me reading about far-flung places these last couple of years. Why research into my next historical novel has floundered. The knowledge I could not travel to unknown places to experience different smells, sounds, sights and tastes. To feel the fabrics, not just made in a country but of the society itself.
Back at The Book Junkie, the young woman presiding over the shelves, maybe one of Mr Samad’s granddaughters, suggested titles and showed us where, in the welter of books, we could find Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Paulo Coelho and then smilingly waved us on our way.
On the drive home, a granddaughter leaning against me sound asleep, I began to think about books with the word bookshop in the title. Books like The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George and
The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer drifted into my thoughts, then The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles. All stories about allowing words to teach, to arouse curiosity, to entertain.
The power of the written word, and reading, has over time been feared by dictators and anarchists alike – think of Hitler’s Kristallnacht in 1938, and more recently in 2013 the Islamist rebels of Ansar Dine who torched the library in Timbuktu.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week brought to mind Geraldine Brooks’ sweeping novel, People of the Book based on real events which tells of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah – one of the earliest Jewish books to be illuminated with images – being saved from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war. Brooks follows the book’s journey back to its creation and tells a story of how people regardless of faith have risked their lives to save a book.
Lives come and go. But the written word must never be lost.
That’s why The Book Junkie on the wild side of Trinidad’s coast is so important.