By Chelsea Ennen
A bookshop (or anything else for that matter) cannot be found within an hour of my hometown. I’ve always felt envious of my college friends who grew up in cities and know enough to mourn the loss of the independent bookshop culture, which I only vaguely understand as a concept. For me, the occasional shopping mall Barnes & Noble was as good as it got. What I did have growing up was a copy of Little Women I read so many times the front cover fell off. Child-me with all my unmolded tastes had practically memorized it, and I said to myself “I’d like to read something else like this, maybe another female author from the nineteenth century?” From there I found a copy of Pride and Prejudice. Next it was a whole Jane Austen omnibus. By the time I got to A Tale of Two Cities I had become a cliché: the Midwestern white girl who corrected the teacher on the Bennett sisters’ ages and dreamed of making a pilgrimage to the “Brit Lit” Mecca that was London, England.
There was no question where I would go for my semester abroad in college, and when I arrived in January 2013 I immediately planned out my sightseeing schedule. Westminster Abbey, where I knew a whole host of authors were buried, would come in towards the end: first I had to make myself worthy, to go through trials of some kind, to distinguish myself. I decided I could best do this by immersing myself in London’s literary culture, so I made a list of famous London bookshops to visit as tourist destinations. I sprinkled various “big sights” throughout the semester; and every weekend I would track down the shop nearest whatever tourist magnet I was visiting, and check it off my list.
Foyles on Charing Cross originally gained fame for its counterintuitive business practice where books were organized by publisher rather than by category or author. By the time I got there, it felt and looked like a good modern bookshop with the added bonus of Ray’s Jazz café, where I snuggled into a small wooden table with a hot latte in a heavy ceramic mug to watch the grey rain fall outside. Daunt Books on Marylebone is best known for its travel books but what makes it memorable is the Edwardian interior. Natural light flooding in from the high windowed ceilings and balcony-style top floor were second only to the greatest tote bag ever created by mankind (everyone in London has a Daunt Books tote bag). Waterstones in Piccadilly is the largest bookshop in Europe: floor after floor filled with shelf after shelf of books. I had prepared myself for the blandness and impersonal atmosphere of a large chain, but instead the ambiance was warm and friendly. The lighting, while bright, felt gentle on my eyes, and the black shelves made the book covers pop like canvases in an art gallery.
But of all the bookshops, Hatchards was by far my favorite. Founded in 1797 it is the oldest bookshop in the United Kingdom and sits near the Waterstones on Piccadilly, in one of London’s busiest neighborhoods. When I stepped out of the tube I was immediately transfixed by neon signs like those in Times Square, the winged statue of Eros, the London Pavilion, the Criterion Theater! Small-town girl that I was I vacillated between child like exhilaration and child like fear. With its unassuming dark wooden exterior and small hanging sign with the name written on it in a tasteful golden script, Hatchards seemed as if it had been forgotten by time as the city just grew up around it. Inside, the wooden steps that lead from one small floor to another were worn down in the middle by countless feet, the walls were dark, there was only just enough light for comfortable reading, the air smelled of old paper (what greater scent is there?), and I remember wishing I could live there. Stepping into Hatchards from the bustling Piccadilly streets was like stepping into another, older, quieter world. When I stepped back outside I was almost surprised to see cars and not horse-drawn carriages. More than that, I felt the significance of the fact that this shop was actually standing while my nineteenth century favorites were alive and writing.
Satisfied in my efforts to become a part of a real “bookshop culture,” I felt ready to proceed to the final stage in my journey. This was the country where my favorite books were written; it was time to do something more than tour places I could buy them. The time had finally come for Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. My trusty Rick Steves travel book told me that Poet’s Corner is home to countless memorials of musicians, writers of all kinds, and even Laurence Olivier. Many of them are not actually buried there, but about half of the names represent actual human remains. It even worked out that my parents could come see it with me. They were on their own European trip to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and by the time they got to me they had already seen Rome, Venice, and Paris. My dad was on a literary mission of his own, finding all the places mentioned in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. A history buff, the fun he had reading a book that bent history (to put it kindly) did not lessen his enthusiasm for learning about the real monuments, and he couldn’t wait to find Isaac Newton’s tomb in Westminster (“ ‘ A knight a Pope interred!’ “).
After we found Newton’s monument (which is so ornate we felt embarrassed for missing it ) and browsed through the hundreds of monarchs and consorts buried in the nave, the flowing crowd carried us back to Poet’s Corner. Everywhere I looked I saw some familiar name or other; it was overwhelming. Chaucer was here, Milton was there, I suddenly realized I was standing on Thomas Hardy. We pored over every inch, but I remember wishing desperately that they allowed pictures so I could have something to look over after we left. Some of the more famous names had ornate statues, like Handel, whose grave was marked by a life size statue of himself writing a piece of music, but others who were equally recognizable, like Henry James, Lewis Carrol, and D.H. Lawrence, were immortalized only by square stones in a row on the floor. Even the stained glass windows were covered with names. Countless eyes in busts bore into me with their marble stares, the grander statues loomed giant-like above me, the name-littered floor looked ready to swallow me whole for daring to step on it.
I knew Poet’s Corner would be one of the big highlights of my trip, but I had no idea the effect it would have on me. It wasn’t long before my stomach tightened and I felt rather dizzy, which at first I attributed to a lack of protein and too much walking. Suddenly I felt the gravity of the space I was in, the immense weight of all that these names and statues and memorials and plaques and windows represented. The Corner was its own temple within the church: a sacred space where the nations’ literary history was glorified by tangible altars. We were only an insignificant few of hundreds who daily came to pay their respects and offer their prayers.
Despite my unapologetic devotion to literature I am really not a particularly sentimental or sensitive person, so I’m not used to crying or getting emotional at all let alone in public. But as I stared down at Charles Dickens’ name my head started to swim, as if he knew I was looking at him and pumped my brain full of his iconic London fog. I turned to my left hoping for relief, but instead saw the Bronte sisters’ memorial. Dad nudged me, pointed a little to the right of the Brontes and whispered “Hey, look over there,” in my ear. Jane Austen.
I actually had to sit down and breathe for a minute. Confused as to what was happening to me I fought the stinging tears in my eyes and just stared blankly at Jane Austen’s name as my wiser parents patted my back and waited for me to collect myself. I was no longer the skinny little kid who pushed back her hair with a Disney’s Pocahontas headband to read: I was almost a senior in college, I’d been exposed to a much wider variety of authors I admired and enjoyed just as much, but these were the books I grew up with. These were the stories I loved most, that I read for pleasure. These were the movie adaptations I watched over and over and over. These stories were my stories, and I was surrounded by the remains of their creators.
Eventually I gathered myself enough to channel my nervous energy into chattering about why George Eliot wasn’t actually there and one of the guides must have heard me because he approached us. “Have you found all your favorites?” he asked with a friendly smile. He was probably used to seeing these breakdowns on an hourly basis. “I don’t even- I mean I’ve found everyone I can’t even-” I struggled to form coherent sentences. My eyes filled up again as I finally found the words for what I was feeling. “I’m sorry, I study English literature, my whole life is right here!” He grinned knowingly. “This place must be a pretty big deal for you then, huh?” In that moment, I could have kissed that little man who helped us find a whole host of big names we hadn’t noticed, and who told us all about how people were often buried standing up to save space. He knew exactly how big a deal that place was for me; I could see it in his eyes as he spoke. He knew what this meant to me. My whole life, contained in one corner, was right there.