Tuesday, 6 October 2009

the secret life of the bookstall...

a bookstall is not simply a row of trestle tables on some windswept verge groaning under the weight of a random selection of tatty books. nor is it merely a second rate bookshop, a substitute for the real deal. in actual fact its a crucial component of any city with a cultural pulse. if there was a rating system for cities with heart, soul and cultural kudos then the presence of a second hand bookstall would surely rank high on its list. a good second hand bookstall is a natural hub, a communal sociable space where individuals can meet, become acquainted, exchange ideas or simply recommend a favourite read to a stranger. in the highly commodified environment of the average british metropolis the bookstall is a practice of everyday life, the last gasp of spontaneous cultural activity, virtually revolutionary...

one of the things that most struck me on my recent mooch through france was the prominence of literature, of books and reading, in the everyday life of the citizenry. bookshops still seem to punctuate the high street on continental europe, as essential to 'ordinary' life as the boulangerie or the tabac. books turn up everywhere - even the smallest town has a book shop or two. to the casual eye the small independent or local second hand store seems to survive happily alongside the fnac and the hypermarche outlets on the edge of town. the village market and weekend puce always has a serious smattering of booksellers nestled cosily in between the vegetables, the charcuterie and the bric a brac, whilst in random squares across town flea markets spontaneously spring up where books invariably take pride of place. the quality is always amazing - not for them a dogeared collection of mouldy mills and boon, but an enviable library where contemporary and classic fiction vie for space with treatises by sartre, derrida, foucault, baudrillard; you name it, they'll have it.

perhaps its the sheer variety or the proliferation of pocket editions, affordably priced but still well designed and a pleasure to own, that around every corner, every shady nook or little cafe, someone can be spotted happily curled up with a book. there is a sense that in france there is a feeling of pride and admiration towards writers and thinkers which is not confined to the ivory tower. where else would a series of university lectures by a cultural philosopher cause so much excitement, filling the largest of lecture rooms, that they had to be broadcast on to the streets at large?

what a disappointment then to return home to find that one of the last remaining book outlets in the city is currently under threat, shattering the fantasy of my neighbourhood as local bohemian enclave, enriching my daily routine and connecting me to other mancunian bluestockings and boffins, past and present. come rain or shine, its alluring vegetable boxes stuffed full of colourful spines and racks of classic vinyl never fails to draw me to it for a quick browse. like a car boot sale or vintage clothes store these encounters are mini adventures where the delight lies in stumbling across a longed for item or the discovery of a brand new author or genre. unpredictable and impetuous, the bookstall makes mavericks of us all, admitting us to whole new worlds of information and knowledge.

the bookstall outside the manchester met student union is not just a veritable treasure trove of literary delights and unexpected pleasures, it is an institution and landmark; an integral part of the landscape alongside the 8th day, have a banana, sandbar, trof, cornerhouse, java bar, kimji's, umami noodle bar. not to mention the bicycle doctor, johhny roadhouse, the barbers shop and upstairs tattoist. this impressive mix of independent businesses complete with its own park and mandatory 24 hour takeways beats anything in the city and is an urban village to rival chorlton, as bustling as portobello, as vibrant and down at heel as brick lane.

this stall with no name but plenty of charisma is an critical if not pivotal element of this idiosyncratic mix of not only oxford road's student campus but of nearby hulme and brunswick, its geographical position a vital bridge between the ivory tower of academia and its neighbouring populations. plus its the meridian line between the nearest bus, tram and train stops for civil servants hotfooting it home, media types fresh from the beeb and creatives spilling out from the nearby galleries and museums. the bookstall is literally and metaphorically the place where everything meets and converges - its probably perched directly on a leyline!

manchester has few enough book shops as it is and few genuinely quirky uncommercialised street activities. lets not sit down and let this disappear - lets sit down and protest in the only way a bookworm can.....by having a good old read! on facebook i recently proposed a mass read - in. bring comfy chairs, tea, biscuits, blankets for the cold, even festoon the stall with fairy lights and lanterns for the evenings. gathered together we could read and swap books, post reviews of favourites on to facebook or create a blog to share new discoveries, a global-local reading group. bibliophile graffiti artists, bookworm guerillas, we could pin reviews onto nearby lamp posts and list impromptu top tens in chalk on the pavements. it would be fun, convivial, effective and thought provoking. quite in the spirit of the street book stall everywhere.

let's rally round our favourite bookstall, this little beacon of european-ness in a grey city.

join the facebook group to show your support or better still pop down to the stall, have a browse, sign the petition, chat to fellow book lovers, and even pick up a treasure to take home…


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