Yesterday I made a pilgrimage to the village of Alnwick, about an hour south of Edinburgh. To heaven.
I had initially intended a bike pilgrimage, but my bicycle has cruelly decided to avenge my imminent departure by expiring in the front hallway. (Or rather, the front tire has.)
Anyhow. I took the train in the end, a wonderful thing in and of itself. One of the most glorious things about the actual travel portion of travelling (which many people seem to grossly underrate) is the open permission you have to sit quietly, to stare out windows, to read gratuitously, and to make random marks on paper with varied writing utensils. Without judgement, because, of course, you are doing something useful as well, you are Going Somewhere.
In this case I had a 2.5 hour train ride both there and back. Five hours! For what, Ms(c) Lenk, for WHAT?!! you may be asking yourselves impatiently. I was on a pilgrimage to a bookstore. A bookstore that is housed in an old train station. A bookstore that has gone the Strand one better, providing fireplaces, sitting rooms, carpets, and a toy train track weaving its way across the tops of the bookshelves. Providing tea, and a fountain with filtered water for those who thirst (including dog-water dishes). A bookstore where four-footed customers loiter with those on two, and gray-rinse ladies discuss book searches with each other in wicker chairs at a big round wooden table in the center of shelves and shelves and shelves, whilst drinking tea and eating flapjacks. A bookstore where kids and adults alike wander around with piles (literally piles) of books in their arms, holding them close to their chests, and the purchase queue weaves through shelves and into the next room for the better part of the day. And this on a MONDAY.
Dear reader(s), I am speaking of the Heavenly Glorious Barter Books.
Initially I thought planning a day trip to a bookshop might be a bit daft even for me, especially when I arrived in said village (or rather the next village over, Alnmouth, from where one must catch a bus to Alnwick) to just fields and drizzle and a house here and there. As I waited at the bus stop in the drizzly countryside I eavesdropped on a group of slightly thick children heading to the Harry Potter castle, which was presumably close by. Ah well, I thought, I can go and ride a broomstick for an hour or so if the bookshop proves a disappointment.
SIX AND A HALF HOURS. I arrived at Barter, and did not leave until 6.45pm when I looked around at the slowly- closing-up-for-the-day staff and heard the silent call of my pending train back.
The bookshop is a second-hand one. Which means all the treasures there have been previously loved. Which means no legion towers of mass-market paperbacks mixed in with candle displays, yoga mats, milkshake fluffers, and god-knows-what-other-rubbish-you-don’t-need that they sell in ‘bookshops’ these days. The atmospheric encouragement to browse is inconceivable. There are no signs telling you what you should read. No ads. My Gods, no ads. And yet, and this is what makes me so many shades of delirious, it WORKS. For all of you business sorts out there, IT WORKS. Monday afternoon and a bigger line-up than I’ve ever seen at any Indigo, Borders, or Barnes and Noble.
For the first time in memory, I browsed, had some lunch, browsed again, and then found myself an old stuffed chair to sit in and actually read through my potential purchases. (Which were predominantly 2.20£ per book, may I add; Take note, Amazon junkies). I read 20 pages of two books before actually deciding that they weren’t going to hold me for the duration, which saved me not only from buying them, but from the way more critical guilty conscience I would have been assailed with had i gotten a fair way through and then found them not to my taste. I read through 40 pages of another one before deciding yes, this was a keeper. And this one too, yes indeed.
Imagine. Imagine we had the time and encouragement to live our lives like this. To sit down in a place with like-minded strangers, examine the things around us, sip tea, and slowly decide if they were worth our committed attention, if they were worth bringing home into our permanent lives. And imagine, last of all, that we paid all our attentions to finding places like these and supporting them and passing them on instead of the daily news, the daily depressing details of all those people who can’t seem to find heaven on earth, no matter how close and accessible it may be.
Oh yes. And the winners were:
Fugitive Pieces - Anne Michaels (wanted to read for years, she had me for forty pages the moment I opened the book)
The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccomatios - Yann Martel (barely needed consideration, he had me after four sentences)
A Spy in the House of Love - Anais Nin (also always wanted to read, and it was just the right shade of saucy after my Beardsley discovery - see below)
The Trial (DVD - screenplay by Harold Pinter, they might as well have just put PINTER on the boxcover)
501 german verbs (I’m getting sick of the 50 odd ones I have been using to describe the last two-odd years of my life in that language, so help me)
The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser - Aubrey Beardsley’s only novel, described thusly:in which is set forth an exact account of the manner of state held by Madam Venus, goddess and meretrix, under the famous Hörselberg, and containing the adventures of Tannhäuser in that place, his repentance, his journeying to Rome and return to the loving mountain. A romantic novel. What it really is is thinly veiled smut, written entirely (well, I’m only 46 pages in) in analogy. They couldn’t ban this book, I read in the introduction, because they couldn’t find one dirty word, and yet it is the height of literary erotica. GLEE! Not to mention the entire book is peppered with Beardsley’s drawings. AMAZING. And put me in just the right mood to dig out some Anais soon afterwards.
And last but not least, Tingo and other extraordinary Words from around the world (Adam Jacot de Boinod) highlighting unusual words from the world’s languages. I heard a lady sitting behind me reading from it to her companion, and was pleasantly thrilled when she decided to leave it behind.
Could there have been a better bookend to my year on the British Isles? No. No, there could not.