An American editor living in London writes about the best places for book lovers abroad.
Sixty cartons of books plus five flights of stairs. The movers were cross, and who could blame them? To the movers, they were "just books." Still, they didn't have to show such contempt. Whack, whack... WHACK they went, spines down, onto the shelves.
When the movers were tipped and gone, I turned all the books the right way around and--almost--felt like apologizing to them. I won't get sentimental on you. They're not like children, or even pets, to me. I suppose the ones I helped to publish during my years as an editor at Penguin are symbols of relationships with the intense and captivating people who wrote them. Certain books, those that I joke about having "become part of my soul," are like blazes in my mental wilderness. A small (hah!) part of my and my husband's identity that followed us across the ocean to start a new life in a new city.
Almost three years ago, I left one world-class, book-mad city (New York) for another (London). That the two cities are members of a mutual admiration society will not come as a surprise. Friends in New York told me they'd give their eyeteeth to stow away to London, and Londoners couldn't believe I'd forsaken a city as dead cool as New York. I am torn myself. And yet, to miss New York while taking full advantage of London is one of the greatest pleasures of a certain type of expat. The culture shock would have been far worse had we moved to LA.
I knew that London could be home when, as a student 15 years ago, I arrived without a book to my name and ended up shipping home a box the size of a Mini Cooper: the spoils of my junior year abroad. Always, no matter how little money there was in my wallet, how few bookshelves I had, or how many free books I received from generous publishing colleagues, I've bought books. (With the acquisition of a Kindle, my book hoarding hasn't stopped, but at least we are staving off the terminal, Collyer-brothers phase.) I always told myself that this was shoring up against some future want, some unimaginable gulf of free time. If this is true for you, too, take heart! In my case, it turned out to be true.
A year and a half ago, I decided to leave my job as an editor at Gotham Books in New York. (Imagine the implications of a transatlantic commute, recall if you can the still-buoyant economy of spring 2008, and maybe leaving a dream job like that becomes understandable. Or maybe not.) Every freelancer's life involves some, shall we say, unplanned vacation time. And, whisper it: there's only so much yoga a person can do.
So. To prove that unemployment is not wasted on the unemployed, in this blog, I'm going to take you on a series of field trips to discover hidden corners of London's book culture. I will be highly opinionated about which bookstore cafes have the best brownies. (Okay, okay -- scones too.) Maybe it'll inspire you to put some phantom appointments in your next London Book Fair schedule and see where the book people hang out the other 51 weeks of the year. It isn't -- thank goodness -- the Earl's Court Exhibition Centre. For one thing, the lighting is a lot more forgiving. Next stop: a bookshop as stylish and timeless as a little black dress (but smarter).