4 June 2016

Writers in bookshops

Posted by Anna Thornton

Our own poetry buyer and tweeter extraordinaire John Clegg has just published his debut poetry collection with Carcanet, Holy Toledo! In his honour, Anna considers the close relationship between writers and the bookshops that keep them afloat by – literally – paying their salaries.

Where there are independent bookshops, there also shall there be at least one aspiring writer on the payroll – from Harold Munro of the Poetry Bookshop in Edinburgh, via Phillip Larkin’s work as a librarian (near enough to a bookshop, anyway), to the San Francisco poets that founded City Lights Bookstore.

Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids recounts her time working in Brentano’s bookstore in Manhattan (and in moments of desperation sleeping there). This form of bohemian, live-in bookselling lifestyle still goes on today in an even more romanticized way, in the tumbleweeds at Shakespeare & Co in Paris. Aspiring writers can apply to live in the shop for a few weeks, swapping a few hours of their time and a short piece of creative writing for a sofa to sleep on and a literary milieu on the left bank. How could you not be drawn in by this bohemian ideal?

Copyright Shakespeare & Co

For many, bookselling becomes a part of the writing process, with the very proximity and physicality of books inspiring poems and prose. This can make it hard to distinguish which came first: booksellers drawn to writing, or writers drawn to bookselling. Perhaps this is why so many writers choose to continue working in bookshops after their books are published successfully. Bookselling has a solidity, a routine which gives a writer the structure they need to manage the deadlines demanded by publication.

John Clegg believes that bookselling gives him “space to read, good company, good recommendations”. Despite the recent publication of his debut collection, he wouldn’t consider quitting the shop, as he would “worry about what would happen to the poetry section.” Thanks for the vote of confidence, John...