Venturing into the anchor store of Blackwell Books in Oxford, England was, therefore, a real treat. Other than a small coffee and tea shop for weary browsers, the entire 4 floors (over 150,000 books on seven miles of shelves) of this local landmark was devoted to books. Blackwell is a chain in the UK (and also a publisher of educational texts) and I can’t attest to the quality of their other stores but I spent 90 happy minutes and (and over 100 pounds) wandering from shelf to shelf – without even getting to half their sections. A combination of University and generalist bookstore, you can pretty much find anything that suits your fancy. I bought a collection of short essays about France between the wars written by Joseph Roth, a biography of Paul Dirac, a novel by Australian Stephen Toltz, recommended to me by a lovely Aussie woman, named Mary, whom I had met in Tuscany and several others. And when I checked out they actually apologized for making me wait while they served the one person in front of me.
A few days later, I dropped into another famous bookstore, this time Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Though not the original store founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919, it has its own significant literary provenance which you can read about here. The store was crammed to the gunnels with all sorts of literature, with large sections devoted to poetry and, of course, the ex-patriot community who hung out there in the 1920s. The only non-book item in sight were book bags, being sold to fund libraries in third world countries. Apparently there are sleeping quarters above the store for young writers to stay at. They pay their rent by working a few hours at the store. Any takers?