The word “bookshop” conjures up certain images to me: killing underage weekends flipping through magazines in Borders café and gawping at the price of hardbacks, then buying them because you need them regardless (shout out to The Good Immigrant here). Even more than this, there is an overriding feeling of being judged by disinterested waifs, who recline artfully across counters and raise their eyebrows at the sight of yet another seemingly intelligent member of Joe Public paying *actual money* for the latest Dan Brown.
With over 500 independent bookshops in the UK having closed down since 2005, it seems clear that this feeling of vague intimidation is shared by a lot of people. Please don’t get me wrong, I adore reading and do not want to imply that a love of books equals pretension. Fiction got me through some difficult times at both primary and secondary school, and I find the anticipatory silence before turning a page in a library one of the simplest of pleasures in the world. I just want to love going into a bookshop and be able to choose my own poison with the minimum shade thrown possible. Booksellers all over the UK are trying new approaches to make the experience more welcoming: a personal favourite is ‘Beerwolf’ in Falmouth, Cornwall (for details, see below).
Since I had already booked a holiday to Madrid, I thought I would check out how the Spanish sell their books, and headed down to Desperate Literature, which El País calls “more than a bookshop.” At first glance, Desperate Literature looks unremarkable, aside from it being beautifully curated and in an incredibly central location in Spain’s capital. One of Desperate Literature’s “USPs” is that it is an international bookshop, with shelves divided into English, Spanish and French literature and bilingual and (green with envy) trilingual staff fully willing to follow through on the signposted offers for a tour of the shop. It’s not that odd for customers to be offered gourmet French cheese fresh from Paris to nibble on whilst browsing, and shots of whiskey are sold with certain books. Frankly, it feels wrong that copies of “Naked Lunch” are sold without this elsewhere.
Co-owned and managed by Terry Craven and Charlotte Delattre, who met working in the seminal Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, Desperate Literature aims to bring “cultural, linguistic and social exchange” between Madrileños and tourists alike. With this aim. various evenings in a week are dedicated to different events, ranging from an open invitation Chess Night to poets and authors coming into the shop to give presentations on their work. Book readings are ten a penny, but affordable prices and a warm welcome consistently draw in a crowd that fills the shop and stretches queues long outside the shop. Authors are carefully curated, often coming from recommendations from sister shops in Santorini, Greece and Brooklyn, NY.
Another wonderful aspect of Desperate Literature is its ability to open cultural horizons. “Tumbleweeds” (travelling artists and writers to you and me) have the opportunity to stay in the shop at no financial cost, instead they give a few hours work a week and the promise that they will leave something impermanent and something else permanent behind after they leave (e.g. some ingredients for a recipe and a musical composition). This aspect gives the shop the feeling that it is continually evolving: the basic structure of the shop stays the same but new twists are constantly taking it in different directions. It doesn’t feel unfair or overly contrived to say that this approach reflects the always-changing nature of literature itself: there are always words and the page, but techniques and styles that craft them into works of art come and go.
So why is Desperate Literature so important? It represents everything that retailers of every ilk should want to be imitating: accessibility and a willingness to try new approaches in order to attract different audiences and customers. Not only that, but it does all of these things whilst remaining a bloody good bookshop at heart. On a personal level, I cannot describe how happy I was to find a “Children’s Corner” tucked away in the back of the shop, complete with a comfy sofa and shelves packed with a great selection of titles (again, in French and Spanish as well as English) from those aimed at toddlers to young adult fiction. Happily, the staff are just as knowledgeable about this section as they are about any other in the shop. I was pointed towards a beautifully illustrated story by Oliver Jeffers, then directed to the pages on which particularly jaw-dropping illustrations could be found and encouraged to have a read through.
It’s sad when an adult tells me they don’t like reading, but it’s perfectly legitimate considering the pressure on children to read and analyse the same books and plays over and over from the age of seven. Reading for pleasure has been found to improve personal and social development in both children and adults, but an intimidating atmosphere in a bookshop can be the block that stops young readers continuing into adulthood. If more bookshops can harness this friendly and expansive experience, I feel it could genuinely increase the number of adults reading for pleasure, and could have further beneficial effects for the next generation. Until then, I leave you with a stomach full of pinchos, carry-on baggage stuffed with everything from pop-culture zines to children’s books, and recommendations of two of my favourite UK-based independent bookshops.
In The UK
Libreria at Second Home
A London-based bookshop where owner Rohan Silva has promised that whatever your book request, “no-one is going to raise an eyebrows”. With an emphasis on nurturing “creativity and innovation”, Libreria has a full cultural programme that includes a monthly bookclub, as well as risograph machine in the basement, creating prints and cards and allowing those interested to attend frequent risograph workshops with an in-house specialist.
Down a hilly side street in Falmouth, Cornwall, Beerwolf Books is favourite for locals, students and holidaymakers alike (quite a feat in this area). Punters come for the promise of books and booze and keep coming back for the relaxed atmosphere and weekly events, which can range from live jazz to a glam metal night in honour of a birthday. With both new and secondhand books available, I defy you not to come away with something from Beerwolf Books that isn’t just a hangover.
 Oliver Jeffers, This Moose Belongs to Me.