Churchill, Fine Presses and Commissioning Editors

Literary Tourist in London, England: Day 3

A bright and sunny morning. Perfect opportunity to bury ourselves in Winston Churchill’s bunker, the underground nerve centre where Winnie and his inner circle choreographed the Second World War. My wife had reserved tickets for 10am. At first sight, the prospects didn’t look good.

I hate lining up. For anything. Thanks to the tickets, however, we were ushered into a very short line that started to move directly through the entrance the moment we joined it. The timing was exemplary.

Lots here to take in. I liked the special bedroom set aside for Winston’s wife, Clemmie. Apparently the two couldn’t abide being apart for long. The exhibit, which focuses mostly on the war years, also covers much of the glory of Churchill’s long life. One thing it skips however, is his writing career. He published a prodigious number of words, and won the Nobel prize for literature. Some years ago I interviewed Ron Cohen, Churchill’s bibliographer. You can listen here.

Despite an absence of books, Churchill’s war rooms are still worth a visit – lots of authentic material to take in – film footage, letters, even the door of Ten Downing Street – plus there’s a gift shop filled with bulldogs,

cigars and this sexy navy blue and white number that Churchill favoured. Looks a mite big for a bow-tie.

From central command I surfaced and walked a short distance over towards Westminster Abbey to admire this bronze sculpture by Ivor Roberts-Jones

past this iconic statue-still symbol,

and onwards to Portobello Road via the tube and a short walk past this colourful curb-side grocer,

and these sun-dappled townhouses.

Sophie Schneideman led me to the back of her husband’s photography shop, where she keeps her fine collection of fine press treasures. It’s a cosy little nook, packed with beautifully printed books. Perusing some of her catalogues while she popped out, I noticed that they were designed by the revered Jerry Kelly (must interview). Her shelves supported books by Cobden-Sanderson, William Morris, Charles Ricketts and Gaylord Shanelic, who I’d recently interviewed out in Minneapolis, listen here.

Sophie was on a tight schedule, so we set to it. You can listen to our conversation about some of the great fine presses (Kelmscott, Ashendene, Doves, Circle) and how to go about collecting them, here

From Sophie’s I made my way back down to the tube station. Destination: Notting Hill

I wasn’t so much interested in Hugh Grant, as I was Hannah Knowles, senior commissioning editor with Canongate (I’m thinking Churchill would’ve liked that blouse).

After scouring the neighbourhood on foot and in taxi I eventually found her offices and was led into a slightly echoey boardroom. One of the walls was a beautiful choral colour, decorated with repeating purple foxgloves. Years ago I’d interviewed Hannah’s boss Jamie Byng at BookExpo in Washington, D.C. Listen here

Now it was time to talk to someone who really knew him. Actually we talk mostly about Hannah’s role, the freedom she enjoys, and how cool and eclectic Canongate’s backlist is. If that doesn’t arouse your interest, you might want to pay special attention to the part where she talks about a guy having sex with a cross-dressing lizard. Listen here:

From Hannah’s I made my way over to the British Library. Had an appointment to see a literary publicist just across the road. After 10-15 minutes pounding on the door to no response, and several unanswered telephone calls, I strolled back across the street to check out the free Treasures of the British Library exhibit. It included original Lennon and McCartney lyric manuscripts, complete with doodles. From here I walked past St Pancras station where you’ll find a statue of John Betjeman by sculptor Martin Jennings.

I decided to take a powder on Harry Potter’s train Platform 9 ¾ located in nearby King’s Cross Station, and headed straight for one of my favourite London bookstores, Collinge and Clark ( aka Black Books).

Favourite because it specializes in books on books, and private presses. Oliver lets me go down into the basement too – a rare privilege, despite appearances. I collect publisher’s histories. Didn’t find much this time round, but I did spot this:

Pretty obvious what Oliver collects. Next time I’m in town, I hope to interview him about this, and other hot collectible items.

Mollat, Montesquieu, Mauriac and an Arrogant Little Rooster

Literary Tourist in Bordeaux, France

After strolling around Montaigne’s chateau

Montaigne wife tower, chateau, bordeaux
His wife apparently lived in the tower at the end, a long way from Montaigne’s study.

and eating royally on the run in St. Emilion,

we headed for Bordeaux. Since we were staying on the outskirts, I took the bus downtown. The first thing I spotted was this giant column, supported by a spectacular chariot

guarded by this arrogant rooster.


If his name isn’t Napoleon it should be.

I started walking in the direction of the Mollat Bookstore that publisher Heloise D’Ormesson had recommended I visit (at 15 rue Vital-Carles). It’s the oldest independent bookstore in France, and one of the biggest. It’s been in business, in the same family, since the 1890s and it’s located on the site of the last house that philosopher Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu lived in. I found it easily enough. When I arrived I figured I’d try to meet the owner, Denis Mollat. Turned out he was due to show up in 45 minutes, so I asked where all the charming little dying-to-be photographed ‘libraries’ were at,  and was told to visit a nearby side street. Here’s what I found:


This is no longer a bookshop, but the old sign’s still here so it counts. I love the lettering, and the colour of the paint.


The owner here wouldn’t let me take his photograph, but he did give me his latest catalogue.

After reaching the end of the rue I found myself à côté de Continue reading “Mollat, Montesquieu, Mauriac and an Arrogant Little Rooster”

Wales, the Gregynog Press, Dylan Thomas and Baritones

Literary Tourist in Wales

Before heading off to Wales for a sneak preview of what that principality had in store for literary tourists the following year (2014), I took an inventory of what I knew about the place: Dylan Thomas of course: grew up in Swansea, lived in the coastal village of Laugharne, baritone, had a tempestuous marriage, died in New York, drank a lot. Tom Jones, baritone, drank a lot, tempestuous marriages, hairy chest. Richard Burton, baritone, movie idol, Taming of the Shrew, tempestuous marriages, drank a lot. Hay-on-Wye, leeks, and the Gregynog Press.

The team at Visit Wales did a superb job touring us around, rounding out my limited knowledge of the territory. Part of that rounding involved my interviewing people about Dylan Thomas for The Biblio File podcast. Annie Haden for instance.

She’s a tour guide who specializes in the poet. With over 20 years experience in the tourism sector, she uses an easy to listen to story-telling technique which keeps her charges both awake and informed.

I caught up with her at Morgans hotel in Swansea, Thomas’s home town, to talk about poet and place. Listen here:

I also interviewed George Tremlett an author, bookshop owner, and former politician. After leaving King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon he worked for the Coventry Evening Telegraph from 1957 onward as a TV columnist and pop music reviewer. In the 1960s he became a freelance rock journalist and in the 1970s wrote a series of paperbacks on pop stars, including The David Bowie Story, the first bio of the musician.

He’s also a biographer of Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin. In Caitlin: Life with Dylan Thomas he argues that the poet was the world’s “first rock star.” In 1997 he published a book with James Nashold, The Death of Dylan Thomas, which claimed that Thomas’s demise was not due to alcohol poisoning but to a mistake by his physician prescribing cortisone, morphine and benzedrine when it wasn’t called for, because Thomas was actually in a diabetic coma.

Tremlett runs the Corran Bookshop in Laugharne, Wales – has since 1982. The shop is located right across the street from Browns,

the pub that Thomas frequented (frequently). In addition to a selection of used books, his shop offers tourist information and it’s where I met George to have this conversation:

***

Unfortunately we couldn’t fit Gregynog Hall,

where the press’s books are printed, into our Welsh itinerary. So I decided Continue reading “Wales, the Gregynog Press, Dylan Thomas and Baritones”

Tumbling into the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart in Paris

Literary Tourist in Paris

It was a tough trek. Way longer than I expected – from the American University of Paris to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore along the Seine. I was lugging my laptop too, and the books Daniel Medin had given me after our conversation about translation, plus this

Shakespeare and Company Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. Predictably I wasn’t on time for my interview with its editor, Krista Halverson. It wasn’t that I was winded, or, despite the heat, sweating too much; no, I was annoyed because I was unnecessarily late. Krista quickly shooed this funk away, assuring me that she hadn’t noticed, inviting me to join her for a beverage at the store’s adjacent cafe (there on the left,  all dressed in white).

Yes, Shakespeare & Co. has its own cafe now! – a luxury that long-time owner George Whitman could only covet. The store, and cafe, are now owned by his daughter Sylvia –  as in Beach – who I had hoped to interview. Unfortunately for me, she was off on maternity leave, nurturing the next generation of bibliophiles.

I ordered an espresso, Krista chose some sort of energizing berry-carrot concoction. Of course that’s what I should have had – being hot and tired and late and all. We moved to the outdoor patio to plot out how our conversation would go. Krista couldn’t finish her drink and offered me what remained – looked like half the glass. Perfect.

She showed me through the shop, which, thanks to various adjacent rooms and apartments coming on the market and being bought or rented at different times , really does

resemble a rabbit warren.

You need to pay attention to details if you want to get the full bookstore experience. Floor tiles

overhead signs, biblical

and otherwise

(City Lights in San Francisco is a sister store, and sports a Shakespeare &Co. sign above its door), and I really liked this window full of flowers

We even stopped in on some young Continue reading “Tumbling into the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart in Paris”

Fixed Book Price, Translation, Books and Bookstores in Paris

Literary Tourist in Paris

She told me to get off at the Monge metro station, her office was nearby. I envisioned traipsing around a bunch of back streets squinting at numbers on buildings, and being late for our rendez-vous. But no. I simply crossed the road, looked up at the street sign – and there it was

3 rue Rollin, rockin’ right in front of me. I’d arrived in plenty of time.

Héloïse d’Ormesson is the founder, with her companion Gilles Cohen Solal, of Editions Héloïse d’Ormesson, a small but sturdy publishing house that attentively puts out 20 books a year. It’s now published more than 200. Here’s most of them

They greet you as you enter the office.

Héloïse invited me into her bureau where we talked generally about book publishing in France. Click here if you’d like to listen in:

Specifically, we dove into why so many editors become publishers, the late adoption of illustrated covers in France; are they readers or customers? the lack of good literary agents in France, Fixed Price policy and the importance of booksellers; Heloise’s heart and soul, her famous father Jean, books in the house at an early age, favourite bookstores, the new Jean d’Ormesson Award, every book is unique, hence there’s no set formula for success – and many other things.

Once our interview was finished I strode out onto the rue, but not before Héloïse gave me a charming little Continue reading “Fixed Book Price, Translation, Books and Bookstores in Paris”