Sunday, February 26, 2012

Beautiful bookshops? No thanks!

At best, the attractiveness of a bookshop is beside the point. At worst it's a positively bad sign

Pile of books: spare me the sofa. Photograph: Toby Talbot/AP
According to William Morris, one of the major thinkers, and designers, of the Aesthetic Movement, you should "have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful". This injunction has always puzzled me, because of that "or": there seems to be some choice involved between utility and beauty. Presumably a knife is one thing, so useful for cutting lamb chops, and gorgeous cushion covers (from Morris & Co) quite another. But a cushion cover is also useful, isn't it? So is a well-designed chair or fabulous table, a curtain or bedspread? Morris designed all of them to be both beautiful and useful.

The stronger claim – have nothing in your house that isn't both beautiful and useful – is more compelling, and is indeed the mantra of most designers of the homeliest artefacts. You want a knife? Why not buy some Georgian silver? Or, if you can stump up for it, one designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh? Surely a choice of such an object is not based on its utility – all knives will cut a lamb chop – but additionally on how attractive one finds it?

It is harder to make the inverse claim: that objects of beauty should be chosen, too, for their usefulness. You might make such a case, even, for paintings: being surrounded by the beautiful works of art is calming and delightful to the soul, and such an aesthetically-enhanced inner organ may well make us perform better in our daily lives.

But I am not much interested in pursuing this, because what I am really interested in here is bookshops. A recent post on this website by Sarah Crown enthusiastically described the "most beautiful" bookshops she has encountered. Readers were invited to add further examples, and pictures were posted of book-lined rooms replete with comfy sofas covered in chintz, tables with pretty little lamps and a vase of tulips, Persian carpets – all the cosiness of a cottagey sitting room redolent of brewing tea and baking scones. Flyers announcing forthcoming poetry readings behind the desk. Mozart playing, soothingly. Nothing that isn't enhancing to the spirit.

What a delight to enter such a place, pick a book off a shelf, plump up a cushion, accept the offered lapsang souchong (lemon only, ta!) and settle down for a read!

Such a shop is intended to offer an experience so thoroughgoing it might be described as organic, in which the environment is as booky as the books, and one is comprehensively immersed in the pleasures of being and reading.

Sounds great, but it doesn't work for me, as it so obviously does for Sarah and her many enthusiastic commenters. This may be because I am a book dealer, and my demands on a bookshop are often specialised, but I am also an avid reader, and I buy a hell of a lot of books. And the kind of (both beautiful and useful) bookshop that has been described is frequently, in my experience, exactly the sort of place that I am disappointed, and frequently exasperated, by. (Though I find more of these in America, I can think of a good few examples in the UK as well.)
Full story at The Guardian.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Bah humbug.
The writer obviously lives in a house with infinite shelving units and don't socialise as much.