Book Stalls and Back Rooms: Traveling the World in Search of Literary Serendipity
Barry Yourgrau on the Memories That Come Along With Any Book Collection
In his canonical essay on his personal library, the great German-Jewish cultural philosopher, Walter Benjamin, recounted, intimately and ardently, how his books were saturated with memories—memories of how exactly they were taken possession of. And further, “of the cities where I found so many things: Riga, Naples, Munich, Danzig, Moscow, Florence, Basel, Paris….” His books operated as mementos, dramatic souvenirs of possession and of travel.
This essay of Benjamin’s speaks to my heart, though I’m no high-grade collector like he was. I’m a fiction writer, mainly, based in New York; but I also wrote a memoir, Mess, about the power of objects and memories. Books I’ve come to own have always been memory-ripe for me, intimately so, and maybe even more so those books gotten on my travels, which have been worldwide these past years accompanying my girlfriend, a globe-trotting food writer.
I don’t however haunt foreign auctions or rare-book dealers. I’m a demi-collector, ardent in my private fashion, a flaneur of physical places, of used bookstores (big-bright or cramped-humble), of outdoor book stalls eyeing the weather, of thrift-shop shelves. I browse for cheap-as-can-be finds of my established taste—and for serendipities, those chance fateful gateways to authors I’ve never read before. Paperbacks preferred for portability.
Working lightly off Benjamin’s essay, I want to recount highlights of my far-flung book-browsing (English editions mostly, I’m monolingual) spanning Paris, London, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and, in particular, Istanbul. Call it a browser’s travelog. Or a chronicle of Slow Book-buying—a reminder and reaffirmation, after these endless withdrawn pandemic days, of being out in the world.
For what experiences derive from surfing and one-click buying online? What memories are made? I speak as a reader who owns all of one e-book; I need the palpable book in hand, weighing it for possible purchase.
Some brief personal background. My academician father was a serious book collector, of scientific and philosophical texts principally, but his interests were wide. (He was a graduate student/fledgling collector in Weimar Berlin when Benjamin unpacked his library in that city). As a faculty brat in the US I roamed university library stacks—my roaming ways came early—and later, after college, while writing my first book and working as a sullen, preoccupied door guard at Harvard’s rare book library, I had license to greedily wander the vast acreage of the Harvard library system’s shelves. Which is how I got my writing education.
Then in New York in the early 80s there was the erstwhile used book row on lower 4th Avenue and its surviving, thriving relic, The Strand… and the public library branch where, 25 years ago, as I idly roamed the “G” section, serendipity led me to pull out a slim volume which introduced me to Alexander Grin, the deeply strange early 20th-century Russian conjurer of fantastical adventures. In the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn and his fellows would recite Grin’s banquet scenes to each other as they starved.
My very first travel acquisition, in Paris, dates from 1977. It’s the Penguin paperback of P.G. Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred in the Springtime, cover illustration by Ionicus, the plum visual interpreter of Plum’s sunlit, dapper world. Its title page carries the red stamp of Shakespeare & Company bookstore; the famous Seine-side bookstalls, the bouquinistes, were already too much given over to tourist chaff. I was visiting Paris with my parents, and my Uncle Fred volume brings back right away my father’s indignant grousing about his Parisian physicist colleague only treating us to omelets for dinner at a bistro under the venerable arches of the Places des Vosges. My father was a man who came to Europe to eat a lot.
Two decades later I began traveling with my girlfriend. And in central Amsterdam, at the Friday outdoor second-hand book market at picturesque Spui square, edged around by regular bookstores and festive nicotine-stained brown cafes aka pubs, I found, for just pennies, my first Muriel Spark (The Portobello Road, a sprightly mini-Penguin edition of four stories) and John Reed’s blazingly vivid masterpiece of war reportage, Insurgent Mexico (I only knew his Ten Days that Shook the World), a work to sit on the shelf beside Hemingway’s best.
Here in New York both purchases will also summon late afternoons at a Spui open-air table for a drink with portly, walrus-mustached Johannes van Dam, the eccentric, acerbic grandee of gastronomy writing in Holland, a former bookdealer, who brought us once to his favorite rijksttafel restaurant, where we merrily cried sure! to trying the hottest dishes and almost immediately were flailing and gasping for an ambulance.
In London, the used bookshop located inside the Old Street Underground Station provided my discounted copy of The Drowned World by JG Ballard, a writer known to me but never read. Seeing the book now (still not read, actually) I will immediately recall our apartment sublet right by the station, reassuringly advertised as undisturbed by any traffic noise from the road. True, but unmentioned, the non-traffic pounding from the huge construction site literally one foot outside our back window. It was like an enormous Monty Python practical joke and it put us off London, alas, ever since.
In Jimbocho, Tokyo’s used-book area, I snagged a small old movie lobby card, handsomely colored in a faded way, for the French gangster film classic, Rififi. Jimbocho shops are crammed thick with such delightful visual bric a brac as well as books; here in the smartphone era, I’d slink around, dodging proprietors’ sightlines to take a furtive photo of something delightful, a pictorial freebie for my digital viewing back home.My very first travel acquisition, in Paris, dates from 1977. It’s the Penguin paperback of P.G. Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred in the Springtime.
Benjamin wrote of the “prismatic fringes” of a book collection. The Rififi lobby card helps furnish a display on my New York bookshelf beside the film’s source novel, Du rififi chez les hommes, in French (so a memorious aesthetic object for me) acquired on the Boul Mich near the Luxembourg Gardens a few years before. Bookshelves, I note, are excellent venues for personal decoration—an under-regarded genre if you will.
From Buenos Aires, I came back with a small, frail, carefully unsullied napkin from Florida Garden Cafe, one of Borges’ favored haunts. It occupies a “fringe” with a Spanish paperback (memorious unreadable object) of Borges’ early work, Universal History of Infamy. Which I bought retail, but cheap.
But it is in Istanbul, where we’ve long had an apartment, that my browsing and memories have peaked. In a homey little building of scruffy shops in our European-side neighborhood, I idly spent a buck on a sleazy British 1979 paperback (bikinied blond with a .38 on the cover) of a bygone gangster thriller I’d only vaguely heard of: No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase. This one-dollar serendipity afforded me a thrilling, brutal, lurid 1939 classic of the genre, written as if by a foreigner ferociously impersonating the hard-boiled American style.
Which was the case, I learned, the author being one René Lodge Brabazon Raymond, an Englishman who’d never set foot in America when he wrote the novel (first of very many) using a slang dictionary and an atlas. Orwell called the work fascist but saluted its style and unabashednesss. It was Turkey’s hopeful time in the Aughts when I acquired Chase’s book. Since then the scruffy building got gentrified, like much of Istanbul, and no more book-browsing there… and Turkey turned much, much darker.
But the main site of used-book Istanbul is a rambling nondescript building just off the city’s relentlessly globalized main pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Street. The Aslıhan Pasajı Sahaflar Çarşısı—the Aslihan Passage Used Booksellers Market—consists of two floors whose long dogleg corridors are lined with used-book cubbyholes and their prodigiously heaped display tables. It’s a sort of dowdy version of Benjamin’s celebrated Paris arcades.
The windows here are festooned with a potpourri of book jackets, portraits of Ataturk cheek by jowl with Turkey’s great poet of opposition, Nâzım Hikmet, and stars of Yeşilçam, the populist Turkish cinema of days gone by. The proprietors sit squirreled inside in their further-festooned little personal museums or crèches to culture of yore. The corridors here are never crowded; the ambiance is contemplatively dull, the air of a slowly withering oasis of culture and memory, a fading archive set beside the tourist floods—a recent big influx from the Gulf States—shopping on Istiklal, undeterred for the most part, it seems, by the recent bombing a five-minute walk away. How long, I keep wondering, before this prime real estate is turned into Turkish Delight shops?
Among Aslıhan Pasajı’s piles of old Turkish movie mags and chaotic outcrops of books in English—so many copies of Fifty Shades of Gray, of Barbara Cartland—I’ve plucked for peanuts such savory nuggets as a pristine 1963 English Pan paperback movie-tie-in edition of From Russia with Love, with its Istanbul scenes back when the Hagia Sophia was a museum not again a mosque; Nightmare Town, four early stories by Dashiell Hammett, a serendipity in a battered garish Dell Book paperback from 1949; The Sicilian Specialist, the only one of Norman Lewis’s novels I’ve ever encountered—and most delightfully curious of my Istanbul serendipities, the fragile, clumsily racy 1954 paperback of Kanum Benim (My Law), a Turkish translation of Mickey Spillane’s early berserker classic I, the Jury.
This curio led me to the fascinating story of its translator, FM Ikinci, a pseudonym for the well-known leftist novelist, Kemal Tahir (also a pseudonym). Spillane was enormously popular globally those days, and Tahir, after release from prison for his politics, took on translating the violent affairs of private eye “Mike Hammer” to earn money. When Spillane’s oeuvre was exhausted, Tahir simply made up new “Mayk Hammer” books—giving that anti-Commie brass-knuckle vigilante some thoughtful leftist opinions. I own newish paperback reissues of those counterfeits; hopefully someone will be thoughtful too and translate them into English. For that, I’d certainly pay full price.