a brief, musty foray into bookshop wonderland

Well, I was going to keep the previous post (the illustrated Mortal Engines short story) hanging about at the top of my blog during the holidays, but I just wanted to get in one more entry, and link to another lovely, very book-ish, short story.

It all started a few days ago when I was cycling to Greenwich to do a bit of Christmas shopping and, lo and behold, the Magic Bookshop was open! I’ve only seen it open once, ever, and it felt a bit magical. (I made a blog post about it here.) So, of course, I had to go inside. When the Narnia wardrobe has snow in the back of it, you don’t wait until the next time, because then, most likely, you’ll only find the back of a wardrobe.

Well, I had the most marvellous time exploring for a couple hours, and I’ll post some photos of the things I found in there. But it called to mind a story I’d just been reading by Audrey Niffenegger, Moths of the New World, which inhabits and revels in that world of musty old bookshops and crumbling, yellowed pages. Stuart, our friend Hayley Campbell and I had lunch with Audrey the day after I emerged from the Magic Bookshop, and Audrey said that she’s working on a whole collection of stories about this strange, wonderful Library in the afterlife, which includes Moths and her graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile. The Library’s a bit like the British Library or Library of Congress, in that it stores every book ever written. These books are the ‘real’ books, they’re alive, and every other book is just a copy of that living book. Some of these books manifest themselves as people, like the shy, yellow-haired woman in Moths of the New World. On rare occasions, these real books escape from the Library, and we might encounter them.

Audrey signed and drew this little picture on my copy of her story (not the real book), printed in a slim volume tucked into The Observer one weekend. The good news is, if you missed it, you can still read it online. So get your cup of tea, and you can climb through the dusty bookshelves to Moths of the New World right here.

The Guardian Review Book of Short Stories is a great little volume; it also has an excellent tale, Miracle, by another one of my favourite writers, Nigerian emigré to Britain Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

But those are two other people’s stories, so back to mine, which so far only lives here on my blog, but felt quite marvelous while it was happening. I imagine a good majority of the people who read this blog also have stories about forays into strange-yet-familiar, musty places that hold large quantities of books in varying stages of preservation. These are the kinds of titles you might find in a magic bookshop. A whiff of old-world exploration, pith helmets, and patronising cultural observations that anyone now would be far too embarrassed to publish.

I wasn’t sure if seasons would touch the Magic Bookshop, but I could hear carols playing, and David, the owner, had put up some Christmas decorations.

I went through rooms and rooms, til I got to the back of the shop, where I found this strange book from the 1930’s. Imagine a bank now, publishing a full-colour, faux-medieval album celebrating its grand opening, designed and written by the staff. The pages had a lovely feel (if slightly damp), and the printing had such a nice texture.

The little pencil mark in the book noted a price of £8, but when I took it to the front desk, David’s eyes widened, and he asked me where I’d found it. Somehow, the book had escaped, and no, it wasn’t £8, and no, actually, it wasn’t for sale at all.

David stroked it lovingly, glad that I had rescued it, and let me take photos of all its pages.

Every page is illuminated, and I love all the little details.

These kinds of page layouts remind me of some of the Russian folk art illustrations I love from the end of the 18th, early 19th century, by some of the artists who used to meet up at the Abramstevo Colony

But the Magic Bookshop had more treasures in store. I love this illustration of birds in this Navajo storybook, Paint the Wind.

Oh, look! It’s a book of plays about Queen Victoria, illustrated by Winnie the Pooh’s EH Shepherd.

Here’s the sort of thing that just makes me blink, give a lop-sided smile, and think, wow, how times have changed. I bought the book, I thought it could be awfully fun to sample random sentences from it for a project. Every page it like this, it’s so amazingly over the top. We visited the palace, roaming its frowzy, dusty, lizard-ridden chambers. We also visited the Fetish Grove, rummaging with others, in search of skulls… I love it.

I’m originally from Washington State, so it made me laugh to see this pamphlet prominently on display. I felt like I’d stumbled into Audrey’s Night Bookmobile, and everything in the shop had some sort of relevance to me. The only other time I’d been in, the first book I saw was one of my very favourite books from childhood. (It was Jennie by Paul Gallico, which seems to have been almost forgotten.)

David had this book displayed right at the front desk, where he was sitting with his female assistant, going through accounts. Considering that I’m never quite sure that the shop really exists, it made me smile to think that perhaps David might also just pop into reality as we know it, from some other parallel universe, when the mood strikes him. Interestingly, he’d read my earlier blog post about the shop, linked by the Greenwich Phantom, and he looked at me and said, ‘You know, I can’t call it The Magic Bookshop. It just wouldn’t do, to take down my sign and put up that name. But other people can call it that if they like’.

So I shall. I hope you have a lovely Christmas!

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