Saturday, 21 May 2016

Favourite Bookstores, p.1

A tiny bookstore in the centre of Prague, off the Charles Bridge. I got there by chance. In fact, I think I got sucked into it on my way back from the museum of Franz Kafka (I will not die a happy man if I never visit that museum again), feeling as confused and enchanted as one can only feel after spending weeks looking for Klamm. In all honesty, going past that door would have been the easiest thing in the world. Instead, I was pulled in by the sheer force of gravity whose origin remained a mystery.

First thing I noticed was the frankly impenetrable The Book Of Dave by Will Self. Needless to say, I felt right at home. Three or four visitors were shuffling about, scattered evenly, looking like various forms of bugs (I needed a few more hours to adjust to a world outside Kafka). The place was bright and tidy in that neat Eastern European way. Calm and phlegmatic. I felt at peace.

God knows I love huge bookstores. I can spend days crouched on the floor in Foyles on Charing Cross Road and once I almost did. But huge bookstores will never give you that kind of intimacy. You won't feel the bookshelves moving in on you, and for all the light crammed inside the Prague bookstore – the place was suffocating with books. It left no breathing space other than the smell of a million printed pages.

Flicking through their selection of Saul Bellow (opening The Adventures Of Augie March on any random page is one of life's simple pleasures), I was thinking how much visiting a great bookstore is similar to going to a great restaurant. And if this was the famous Czech strudel, I was happy to stick my teeth into it.

In fact, I kept them stuck right until the closing time, feeling like a kid seduced by shiny covers, and in the end settling on Martin Amis's excellent The Pregnant Widow that had just been published. This turned out to be his best novel in many years, possibly since The Information, but crossing the Charles Bridge later that day, doing it for the umpteenth time, I kept thinking about the origin of the force that had pulled me into that bookstore. 

That charm. I think I got it half an hour later, in a loud restaurant where the famous Czech strudel (with cherries) was quite real. That bookstore was great not because of helpful staff, Kafka or even The Pregnant Widow. Its charm was its location. Because there is nothing more special in a major city than an intimate place at its very heart. Especially if it's a bookstore whose name you cannot recall.