Growing up in Bloomsbury, the central London neighborhood known for its literary history, I spent a lot of time in secondhand bookstores. I wasn’t some kind of intellectual child prodigy, it’s just that I was always with my dad. On the way home from school, he would drag me into one of the independent shops that line the area’s Georgian streets. Although I was a big reader from an early age, the nine-year-old me experienced these excursions as a form of protracted torture. I’d slump onto the shop’s musty carpets with the most child-friendly books I could find, wishing I was at home watching MTV.
As an adult who now spends hours hunting down books for a living – used, rare and indie – I’m amused by the circularity of it all. Who knew that old books would offer an enticing career path, especially in the time of smartphones and our extremely online culture.
When I opened my eponymous ‘Public Library’ in east London, 18 months ago, I was hoping to create space for like-minded bibliophiles to come together after the endless isolation of lockdown. It was also a chance to showcase some of the novels, art books, zines and other printed matter I’d been collecting in the years since I conceded that my dad might’ve been onto something – that old books are actually pretty cool.
‘The filmmaker John Waters once said that you shouldn’t sleep with someone who doesn’t have books at home – and that (kind of) echoes how I feel about public spaces’
Clearly I’m not the only one to think so. Not only did mainstream book sales soar during the pandemic, but a whole load of new-gen bookdealers emerged on Instagram. Most of them were selling the kinds of rare design tomes and vintage Japanese magazines that have, until recently, been sought after only by a niche cohort of collectors. The former editor-in-chief of Dazed, Isabella Burley, launched Climax Books – a ‘distributor of specialist materials’, including first editions by cult downtown NYC writer Cookie Mueller – online in 2020, and it’s been so successful that she’s about to open a retail space in London’s Soho. Elsewhere on Instagram, accounts have proliferated everywhere from Byron Bay (@bacteria.books sells rare ‘left-of-center’ titles which champion ‘the visceral basket of the book’), to Toronto (@offbrand.library specializes in vintage fashion publications) and Paris (@sendb00ks offers limited editions of rare books, wrapped in custom sleeves by fine artists).
With its concessions in Dover Street Market stores worldwide, the cult bookseller Idea Books was among the first to push the rare book as a key cultural signifier of our times. Hotels such as The Standard in London and Palm Heights in the Cayman Islands both boast their own vintage libraries for fashion-set customers to look through. Chanel hosts regular ‘literary rendezvous’. Last year, the New York Times reported that some US celebrities have even enlisted the help of an anonymous ‘book stylist’ to ensure that they’re pictured reading – or simply carrying – the hot title of the moment.
The filmmaker John Waters once said that you shouldn’t sleep with someone who doesn’t have books at home and that (kind of) echoes how I feel about public spaces. These days, when I find myself in a shop or hotel which houses a book collection that looks as if it was shipped in as an Amazon Prime afterthought, it affects my perception of the venue in question. A well-curated library is an expression of a curious, reflective and well-researched mind.
It can say just as much about a business, too. In fact, my latest chapter in the world of books is Salon Studio – a consultancy and curation service, set up to source unique books for homes and public spaces, especially well suited to those not interested in spending hours trawling dusty bookshops like I used to.
With books now very much back in mainstream culture, the risk is that they are reduced to mere #content – one has to wonder how many people are actually reading the stacks lined up in the ubiquitous IG ‘shelfie’. But, at home or elsewhere, the beauty of a well-stocked library lies in its timeless potential to inspire whenever the mood strikes. When you’ve finally scrolled to the end of your feed (‘You’re all caught up’ being the most unsettling phrase of our times), you can always reach for your bookshelf and discover something the algorithm could never hope to serve you. Just make sure you don’t judge the book by its cover. At least not entirely.