Reports of the death of bookstores are fiction. In 1931, there were about 4,000 bookstores in the United States. Almost all of them were gift stores, selling a limited stock of paperbacks. Only about 500 of them were specialist bookstores, and almost all of them were in major cities. True, between 1995 and 2000, the number of independent bookstores collapsed by 40 per cent. Amazon opened for business in 1994, but two other factors were big-city gentrification, and the expansion of mediocre chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, which went public in 1995.
Now, the big chains are gone — and who, apart from a homeless person looking for a day bed, will miss them? — and independent bookstores are booming. The American Booksellers Association says that its membership has increased 40 per cent since 2009, to 2,391. And the rise of big-city rents makes it more likely that if you live in a smaller city, you might be near a bookstore.
In ‘The Ignorance of the Learned’ (1821), Hazlitt wrote that we use books less as ‘spectacles to look at nature’, than as ‘blinds to keep out its strong light and shifting scenery’. The Bookshop, directed by Isabel Coixet of Catalonia, is about that mole-like impulse to burrow away from the world, and how the world still forces us to see ugly spectacles of human nature. Adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel of 1978, this is a minor-key pleasure, beautifully paced, skillfully acted, and thoroughly sad.
In 1959, the war widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) opens a bookstore in Old House, a damp and empty house in the coastal town of Hardborough. The townspeople have the sense not to bother with reading. ‘Books leave me exhausted,’ a fisherman admits cheerfully. ‘Real life’s enough for me.’ The only readers are bunched in England’s social minefield, the terrain between the upper-middle class and the lower-upper: Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), the solitary inhabitant of the big house above the town; Milo North (James Lance), a caddish opportunist who writes for the BBC; and Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), who consider herself to be the town’s social apex, and who wishes to control everyone else’s life.
Emily Mortimer excels as Florence, discovering new life even as she buries herself in the books. Milo North flirts with her, to see if he can go to bed with a good bookseller. Edmund Brundish asks her to send books to the big house, and this leads to a distant romance. Brundish has doubts about Kingsley Amis’ That Uncertain Feeling, but he loves Fahrenheit 451, and asks for more Ray Bradbury. With Lolita, a quiet romance begins. Invited to Edmund’s house for tea, Florence seeks his advice on her big gamble, ordering 250 copies of Lolita. He encourages her: ‘They won’t understand it, but that’s all for the best. Understanding makes the mind lazy.’ The townspeople suddenly develop an interest in modern fiction.
The genteel comedy is almost without laughs, partially because friendship exposes Florence and Edmund’s pained interiors, the sorrows and incapacities that drive them away from people and towards books; partially because of the voiced narration by Julie Christie, which foreshadows catastrophe by describing Florence’s hopes in Penelope Fitzgerald’s flat and agonised phrases; and partially because of Alfonso de Villalonga’s score, which stretches the nerves like a Beethoven late quartet. Books can have happy endings, but Fitzgerald’s people do not.
After opening her shop, Florence learns that Violet Gamart wanted to convert the Old House into that necessity of modern futility, an arts centre. Being the sort of person who wishes to draw the blinds against life’s harsh light, Florence fails to see that Violet Gamart is a power-seeking, predatory monster. While Florence builds up the shop, Violet Gamart whispers in ears, pulls strings with the local authorities, manipulates Florence’s friends, and invokes the new and meddlesome laws of the postwar state. By the time Edmund warns her, it is too late. Does Florence not understand because her mind is not lazy, or because, by closing her sight to the book of nature, she has lost the plot and become blind to the weaknesses of characterisation?
Florence’s dream evaporates, but what endures are the spectacles of nature. Not just the cruel compatibility of snobs and philistines, but also the consolations of sensate life, mental or tactile, shot with cold light. Brown paper and white string wrap a new edition, a pale spaghetti of wood shavings lines a tea chest of new books, and a pink stump of luncheon meat is framed by a white tablecloth. We feel the seething of green trees in the wind, the black rain on the asphalt, the tinkle of coins flicked onto the ground by children, and the dark green floorboards as Florence, realizing that she is losing everything all over again, presses her face into them and sobs. Books may furnish a room, but they cannot make a home.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.