On Friday 11 May, I trekked up to Crouch End Broadway for my first day of book-selling for Peirene Press. Lucky for me, it was a sunny day.
I first hiked to the far-flung reaches of North London (I live near Greenwich, so it really does seem far away,) to meet Meike, the publisher and mastermind behind this successful independent press which exclusively translates award-winning European fiction into English for the first time. On that afternoon a few weeks ago, it was cold and rainy, and after two and a half hours standing by the book-stall with Meike, I was absolutely frozen.
Undaunted, I resolved to carry out a full day of book-selling, not least because I love the concept behind Peirene – novellas (and one short story collection thus far) which can be read in the time it takes to watch a film.
I was also pleased to no end, upon arranging the book-selling with Meike, when she sent me a copy of each of their books so I could read them (in order to talk about them, in order to enthuse about them) — and I absolutely love the books, which are dark & deeply intellectual, but quick reads. There is a lot to think about if you choose, but zippy stories are at the fore. Each book is very different from the next, and they vary in their origins – there are German, French, Catalan, and Danish texts. This is stuff that I admit I haven’t read much of, save Pushkin’s Eugine Onegin, (loved it,) and I quickly discovered two more presses whom I’m in love with, though Peirene gets credit for opening my mind to European literature.
Pushkin Press has a similar bent to Peirene – or perhaps I should say Peirene is like Pushkin, as Pushkin have been around longer. Pushkin Press produce deliciously pocket-sized books, or at least purse-sized books, translated from European literature. I just finished ‘Dying’ by Arthur Schnitzler. There’s a good review of it here. The story and characters ring absolutely true, emotionally. I spent the first half of the book slightly distracted by the fact that I was not convinced that Felix was actually dying, but it didn’t matter because the whole point was how his conviction that he is dying preys on his mind. The psychology and philosophy in this book is rich, and I want to come back to it. It would be a brilliant book to teach in a philosophy course, or a literature course.
Another press I’ve discovered, whose books I would like one copy of each (please. My birthday’s in January, for the record.) is Persephone Books. Meike has taken a cue from this successful press in setting up Peirene, and I feel like I’m getting to know, and help grow, something that will make a difference, and could last a long time. Creating a community of readers, creating beautiful books whose exteriors and interiors are treated with equal import – form and function, cover and contents. I want a book that will enlighten and transport me, and if I want to stroke it and sniff the pages, so much the better. Peirene’s doing that for me, and I’m so very excited to see where she goes next.
If that isn’t enough of a reading list for you (all books from Peirene, Persephone, and Pushkin,) I’m going to try to refocus this post and talk a little bit about my day book-selling. It was absolutely lovely, a sunny day, with lots of people walking up and down the Broad Street. It was our first day trying a Friday – so far, the Roaming Store has only been out on Saturdays, so Meike was curious about how that might be different.
The morning was busy, and I set up the stall with great care, worrying that I might miss something (Meike wasn’t coming until the afternoon, when she’d stand in while I wen to get lunch). I set up the stall to my satisfaction, and then stood and smiled and wondered what would happen. I quickly realised that, as Meike had explained, we need to be active in talking to people, and drawing them in, but it is a delicate balance of noticing when a person is pausing or hesitating – when they are expressing an inkling of interest in the Stall (even if it is simply ‘what is this?’) that I step in and say, ‘Can I give you more information?’ ‘Have you heard of Peirene Press?’ or something similar.
I would say only two or three times in the entire day did I get a ‘no’ to one of those types of question, and even then, there were only maybe two grumpy people, so that was pretty good. The best times were engaging with chats with people, getting across the message about the books, and sharing my own enthusiasm and recommendations. There were a few exciting encounters where someone was already familiar with us and had read a lot of the books, and wanted to know when the next was coming out, or had read about us online and wanted to know more. And I did sell books!
I was on my feet the whole day, but buoyed up by intermittent conversations. Fortunately, it didn’t get very windy, and the sun was actually in my face for much of the morning – probably an unusual occurrence. I’m wracking my brain for where in the Blackheath / Greenwich area would be suitable for a Peirene Roaming Store / book-stall, and I have a few ideas…