Monday, October 23The Voice of London

The Ex Libris: Have London’s Independent Book Shops Unsealed The Last Chapter?

Have independent bookshops become gift shops with a few books lining the shelves you might give your friend for his birthday? Indie bookshops used to thrive and they always deserve, but sadly it seems like we have already unsealed the last chapter of it.

Words: Lei Fu. Subeditor: Tenelle Ottley-Matthew

Graduating from Graphic Design of Central Saint Martins in 2014, and studying Visual Communication at Royal College of Arts now, Qian Yuan is one of thousands art students in London and an adventurer of indie bookshops in the city too. Inspired from her long-standing curiosity and respect for no longer long-standing indie publications, an art project called “The ex libris” naturally born in a format of book plates. The meaning behind it, as she described,  is both a celebration and an obituary of indie bookshops.

A little over 100 independent bookshops remain in London. Yuan selected 10 of her favourites and designed 10 simple yet meaningful book plates, also widely known as ex libris, for each bookshop. 

 

Photo: Qian Yuan
Photo: Qian Yuan

 

Photo: Qian Yuan
Photo: Qian Yuan

 

Photo: Qian Yuan
Photo: Qian Yuan

 

“Ex libris are basically prints, drawings or watercolors inserted into the front of books to signify ownership. They used to be a symbol of the rich, showing how treasured their books are. While people mostly use these as book marks or a part of a book’s design now.  At this dawn of the age of e-books, what better time to look back at an art that began in the 15th century, when printed books were rare, valuable possessions?” When Yuan takes out a gray and plain booklet out of her bag, she gradually explains her project “The ex libris” to me. Each logo on the booklet stands for a unique theme of the indie bookshops.

 

Photo: Qian Yuan
Photo: Qian Yuan

 

Among these ten indie bookshops, she fervidly makes emphasis on three of them: The Atlantis Bookshop, Marchpane and Books for Cooks. Yuan gets a bit emotional when talking about these three bookshops. As an indie bookshop adventurer in London, she loves wandering through bookshops like them. “Independent bookshops have been around forever; they are jewels in any town, city or regular high street. You can come in, you can see the things, you can ask questions, you can browse, you can see what speaks to you, what you interested in.”

 

Photo: Qian Yuan
Photo: Qian Yuan

 

The Atlantis Bookshop is almost 93 years old. They’ve been there since 1922, different from other bookshops, they specialise only in magic and witchcraft. It is a family business, and they are the third generation to own and run this shop.

 

Photo: Qian Yuan
Photo: Qian Yuan

 

Books for Cooks is the only independent cook bookshop in Europe. There are only two others in New York and Melbourne. They’ve been running for 31 years. As a rather personal bookshop for certain readers, the unique merit of it is that the whole room is filled with a love for food. “Their staff and customers are all food enthusiasts, they really know what’s in here and take lots of interest in the store. It’s a lot easier for them to give advice to people , which I don’t think you can get when you visit a chain.”

Yuan gets a bit emotional when talking about these three bookshops. As an indie bookshop adventurer in London, she loves wandering through bookshops like them. “Independent bookshops have been around forever; they are jewels in any town, city or regular high street. You can come in, you can see the things, you can ask questions, you can browse, you can see what speaks to you, what you interested in.”

 

Photo: Qian Yuan
Photo: Qian Yuan

 

Also a time-honored bookshop in London, Marchpane started the business in 1989, solely specialising in Alice In Wonderland. They have not only various editions of “Alice in Wonderland” in English, but a very collected stock of Chinese and Japanese books of “Alice in Wonderland” too. But unlike the other two shops mentioned above, Marchpane is not completely against the Internet, they sell books online too, but mainly in store.

“A tangible book is a magic object. Between two covers, you can go on a safari, you can go under the sea, you can even go to the moon. You can experience so much: happiness, pain, sorrow, love, anything and everything, and it fits in your pocket, and you have that forever. I hope they will stay around, really, because I love them.” What the owner of the Atlantis bookshop said to Qian impresses me. Yes, great independent bookstores deserve to thrive, and I hope they will. But they won’t thrive as local substitutes for Amazon. And if you love books, it’s hard to see Amazon as a villain. More books sold to more people for more reasons than any other retailer in history.

As a matter of fact, before Amazon, indie bookshops have been facing their enemies since a long time ago. After World War II,  the Book of the Month Club began to dominate. If the Month Club picked a book to be a main selection, it would be read, by default, by millions of people, discussed at the dinner table and instantly become part of the dominant culture.

After the Month Club, there was the bestseller in book stores. Soon after the bestseller, The New York Times bestseller list came out as a big hit and it still is now. These are all nuclear bombs for the independent sellers, no matter before or after Amazon and the web, independent book shops are always “in danger.”

As Yuan said, a lot of indie bookshops are running as hubs, connectors and gift shops now. They hold events, open seminars, and offer food and coffee to keep the idea of gathering same-interest people together alive. “Indie bookshops are always looking for a way to survive, and they did so. Because reading itself is not at risk.”

But as the figure shows, more than one-third of independent bookshops have closed down in the past 10 years. The total number of independent bookshops in 2013 fell to 987, from 1028 a year earlier, although the total number of bookshops rose.

E-books would take hold, as readers would rely on the convenience and accessibility. But when tangible books gradually disappear from us, Yuan feels some character has been lost along with it. “That’s why I made these ex libris, to memorise and to treasure, just like what the rich would do in the old times. This makes me feel like I am a rich woman too.”

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