This article was first published in The City Story.
I grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton.
When I wasn’t in school, I was reading. My local library indulged my appetite for Blyton’s mysteries, but I fell in love with books when I was 12 years old and read an abridged version of Jane Eyre. I had never witnessed writing so emotive and characters so strong. My literary tastes broadened, and I started building my personal library. I collected more books than I had time to read, but I didn’t care. Browsing through endless stacks of books is the perfect way to spend an afternoon (or several).
The last time I found a book I knew nothing about that blew me away was in 2009. I had visited Strand Book Stall with a friend. She bought Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. I bought Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. I’ve read many books since, but I remember The Historian because of how I found it—while leafing through dozens of books at Strand with no agenda. I felt like I had uncovered a secret treasure.
I missed that feeling of buying a book I’d never heard of, hoping to be delighted as I delved deeper into it. I made my way back to Strand six years later, but this time with an agenda—there would be no checking Goodreads ratings or Amazon rankings. I was going to judge a book by its cover, dammit. And, well, the first few pages. Let’s not get too crazy.
I headed straight for the wall on which I’d found the Kostova, my eyes wandering over the books that filled the shelves. Barbara Taylor Bradford sat next to Bram Stoker. John Updike next to Charles Dickens. Ian McEwan next to William Shakespeare. Beautiful hardbound volumes of the works of Marcel Proust, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters sat above them like kings. It was erratic, but it was utter delight. There are no demarcated sections here. Sure, there are general guidelines—classics and some fiction to the left, educational books at the back, children’s books upstairs—but the boundaries are blurred. This is no cookie-cutter bookstore where you head straight for your genre of choice and browse with blinkers on. Authors and genres mingle at Strand, leaving you to explore at your leisure.
If you’re looking for something specific, your best bet would be to ask the staff. After giving me a respectful few minutes of staring at the shelves, an attendant asked what type of book I was looking for. “Just browsing,” I said with a smile. He smiled and nodded in understanding and left me alone. Idling isn’t just tolerated at Strand; it’s encouraged. There are chairs around every corner that beckon you to take your time. I spent over an hour in the store, and the staff never made me feel as if I’d overstayed my welcome. I had two books tucked under my arm that the attendant placed at the counter. “I’ll leave these here for you,” he said. He knew I’d be there for a while.
I walked around the entire store, perusing every book that stood out to me. The title, the author, the colours on the spine—if it caught my eye, I pulled it off the shelves to flip through. New books share shelf space with older ones, and the pages of Nathan Englander’s The Mystery of Special Cases were browned enough to pass off as second-hand (it wasn’t). That didn’t bother me. Books are meant to be read, and books that look like they’ve been enjoyed by many a reader are especially appealing. I spent a considerable amount of time sitting in front of the Blyton collection (far too small for my liking) but pulled myself away before I bought them all. I wasn’t there to revisit my childhood. I was there to make a discovery.
And I did. Just minutes before leaving the store, I found the book I knew I had to read. Simon Winchester’s Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories is a 450-page non-fiction book about the Atlantic Ocean. Four hundred and fifty pages. Non-fiction. About an ocean. I didn’t have to let that sink in. I bought it without thinking twice. What stories can Winchester have to tell about a body of water that fill 450 pages? I needed to find out.
I found it among the fiction books.
Strand Book Stall has, sadly, shut down since I wrote this.