Browse: The World in Bookshops

Browse: The World in Bookshops, edited by Henry Hitchings, is a collection of fifteen short reminiscences about the personal significance bookshops had on a diverse assortment of international authors. Half of the stories Hitchings included were not originally written in English, so he employed the work of at least seven translators. My favourite retail space is a bookstore, and specifically a second-hand bookstore. In the introduction Hitchings revealed the hidden secret of second-hand books and the function of their new resting place:

“Discarded books are ‘repositories of the lives they’ve been so close to’, and a second-hand bookshop is a museum of special moments in those lives.”

I have read many books about Finland and languages which I no longer intend to keep. If I slipped them into my library’s ongoing book sale I wonder what the browsing public might think. There’s a nerdy Fennophile linguist in our midst!

Juan Gabriel Vásquez wrote about the charm of bookstores:

“A good bookshop is a place we go into looking for a book and come out of with one we didn’t know existed. That’s how the literary conversation gets widened and that’s how we push the frontiers of our experience, rebelling against its limits. This is something else online commerce deprives us of: on a website we cannot discover anything, we can’t bump into the unexpected book, because an algorithm predicts what we’re looking for and leads us–yes, mathematically–only to places we already know.”


“The best bookshops are places where the principle of serendipity, which in broad strokes consists of finding the book you need when you don’t yet know you need it, presents itself in all its splendour. A reader’s life is, among other things, this tissue of opportune coincidences.”

I would go one degree further and state, to me personally at least, that Vásquez’s remarks are more poignant when referring specifically to second-hand bookstores. Retail establishments that sell new imprints are to some extent predictable. If you want a new book, you will find it there. A second-hand store offers no guarantees what you’ll find. The sense of discovery is all the more exciting when you find titles you never thought existed. Such were my experiences shopping at Schoenhof’s, a foreign languages bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While the majority of the stock was in fact new, some of the language-learning materials specifically were old enough to be out of print. When their bricks-and-mortar store was still in existence I would spend hours there literally browsing the languages from A to Z. My blog posts are full of discoveries of spontaneous joys. The store operates only on-line now. My favourite retail establishment remains Helsinki’s Akateeminen Kirjakauppa, the largest bookstore in Nordic Europe.

Michael Dirda wrote:

“As a boy, I could lose myself utterly in a book; now I seem to lose myself only in used bookstores. Alas, neither sweet surrender nor wide-eyed wonder, except fleetingly, is advisable for a professional reviewer. Moreover, I’m one who, even on holiday, can’t start an Agatha Christie paperback without a pencil in his hand. My mind tends to interrogate any text, on the alert for clues, telling details, key passages, the secret engines of the story. As a result, while reading remains a pleasure, it’s become a guarded pleasure, tinged with suspicion. Quite reliably, however, my heart still leaps with childlike joy at the sight of row after row of old books on shelves.”

Dirda gets two of my passions down in one paragraph: browsing in used bookstores and always reading in a reviewer’s mindset. I will post a review of every book I read, even for books long out of print.

Browse was a fast weekend read which will take you back to your fondest bookstore memories.

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