In entering the self-proclaimed ‘oldest bookshop in London’ last weekend I was overcome by the winding staircase, the tall shelves, and that old-book smell. (You know the one you associate with libraries?) I’ll be honest I didn’t look into their claim of being the oldest bookshop, but upon crossing that threshold I felt that feeling of centuries of knowledge just at my fingertips. However, looking to the shelves, it really doesn’t matter that it’s the oldest bookshop, it houses the exact same works as Waterstones. Granted, if you’re searching for something a little more eclectic and less mainstream, then this place is probably your best bet but, at the same time, don’t worry; you can also find Harry Potter and Twilight. At first I felt cheated, but upon further reflection the mainstream infection doesn’t diminish this bookshop’s charm, but demonstrates that its feet are firmly placed in the modern society of the 21st century.
In the current electronic age there has been a great fear that bookshops will become obsolete. As the two bookshops on Dawson street have dwindled down to one, the fear seems warranted. In walking the ‘magnificent mile’ in Chicago you will not find a single bookshop. That’s right, you have to travel literally miles from the centre of the city to find one. Some have pointed out that it’s no great loss, as most people have access to Amazon now, so why spend tens of euros when you can get what you want for, let’s be honest, 1 cent and you don’t even have to venture out into the rain.
But far from just a commercial business enterprise that is collapsing around us, old-fashioned bookshops hold a certain sentimental value. Bookshops, like libraries, have a certain reverent hush about them. People stand at shelves attempting to choose between the vast quantities of entertainment and knowledge. As opposed to Amazon, where people pick their books on utility or, worse yet, the cover, in bookshops the physical object is there for you to peruse at leisure. You can flip to whatever page you choose without the fear of Google Books prohibiting it from the sample. There is a purity to reading in a bookshop, amongst fellow bibliophiles.
Does this mean that for old-fashioned bookshops to maintain their historical importance it can only house, for lack of better terminology, ‘the classics’? What the oldest bookshop in London reminded me was that the novels we have decided to categorize as ‘popular culture’, which disgust some academics, deserve a place in historical bookshops as much as any other book. Who are academics to determine what is important, especially for future generations? Look to the Gothic, snubbed in its own time as trash for women, which now credits a full module at Trinity. It’s somewhat comforting looking back at that bookshop; it has survived decades, maybe even centuries (again I didn’t look up the validity of their claim) of war, peace, social disruption, and environmental catastrophes and yet there it stands as permanent as the books within it. The fact that novels of our time sit on those walls places them on equal standing with those of the classics, and provokes the thought that if that bookshop continues to survive, will they, too, become classics? What will they inform the future generations of about our version of ‘modernity’ and the world we live in? That bookshop reminded me that the history of literature is a continuum and each day we contribute to it, but as to whether our ‘modernity’ will stand the test of time – well, we need a time-machine, or a visit from the future, to figure that one out.