In a world where the emphasis seems to be on speed, instant communication and rapid gratification, thank God for the tranquil presence of independent bookshops. It is a funny thing really but maybe the beauty of bookshops is enhanced even more in the electronic age. Of course, ebooks are an amazing invention. I have an ereader myself and as someone who has luxuriated and revelled in the beauty of books and the written word, ebooks offer an amazing platform in which to spread the sheer wonder of stories, imagination and information. Yet a well-furnished bookshop with enthusiastic staff, exuding mellowness and charm aplenty will always captivate me. If you wander the streets of Hay-on-Wye or visit Montmorillon in France, there is something indescribably soothing that permeates the soul. For some people, bookshops are viewed at best with a sense of disdain, at worst with a “Why bother” outlook, when all the world is available at one’s fingertips. With all the books you could possibly want readily available with a few judicious mouse clicks, why on earth would you want to avail yourself of browsing in a real-life bookshop?
Ah, more fool them. For what bricks and mortar shops offer that the internet never can – no matter how sophisticated the latter becomes – is a 3D experience as lived through the senses. Yes, the senses. What a wondrous thing, the sensory world is, when we seem to be living in an environment that bleeps “Now, Now, Now”! Oh I love the ease, the beauty, the sleekness, the convenience, the sophistication, the sheer capaciousness of what technology can provide but there is a lack. This lack can best be summed up when you while away a delicious half-hour or two in a well-stocked bookshop. Bookshops provide nourishment for the mind but, and this is the crucial part, they also offer sustenance for the soul. Yep, bookshops have got soul and more. And this, I believe, is what sets the best apart. They are places that engage in social and cultural capital and, moreover, are places just to be.
The outstanding bookshops ooze an exquisite ambience, that not only allow you to cherish the written word but also give you space in which to think, be yourself, create, ponder, wonder, laugh, love (bookshops fizz with romance,no?) maybe even pen a few thoughts. For surely, what could be more conducive to feeling that urge to scribble than being encompassed by an atmopshere that seduces the mind, heart and soul? Again, the naysayers will argue that bookshops are becomingly increasingly obsolete, especially when you can buy everything online. Well, you can’t buy atmosphere online. Not the last time I checked, anyhow. The bookshops that thrive are those that provide bags of atmosphere, offer nourishment for the body as well as the mind and go that extra step in becoming the cultural heartbeat of the communities they serve. Two such bibliophilic heavens – which I heartily recommend – are The Hours Café and Bookshop in Brecon and Richard Booth’s Bookshop and Café in Hay. You will get a flavour here but if you really want to savour and digest their full beauty, you really must pay them a visit. They’ve got character. In abundance.
“A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking” (Jerry Seinfeld)
“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.” (Neil Gaiman, American Gods)
“My favourite place in the whole city was the Sempere & Sons bookshop on Calle Santa Anna. It smelled of old paper and dust and it was my sanctuary, my refuge.” (Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel’s Game)