Saturday, 4 February 2012

Just some whimsical observations on bookshops

Sometimes amid the dross that makes up so much of the internet somebody writes something that makes you grateful for the age of worldwide instant communication in which we live. So it was this week when someone by the name of Emily Temple, who I will almost certainly never meet, published this: her suggestions for the twenty most beautiful bookstores (sic) in the world.

Intellectual ambrosia, then picked up upon and subject to alternative proposals by, amongst others, our own Kenny Farquharson.

I can't aspire to that catholicity of experience. In the end, much as I love bookshops, I am not entirely at ease abroad.

Physically, I like where I am familiar. The West of Scotland. Even Edinburgh makes me slightly uneasy. I often think, temperamentally, I should be in the SNP. Or possibly even in the EEPNP (East end of Paisley National Party).

So you would suppose my own favourite bookshop would be Waterstone's in Sauchiehall Street. And it is certainly up there.

But although I am slightly ill at ease where I am unfamiliar with my physical location, I am never lost when I am in the realm of ideas. So, my favourite bookshop in the whole world is not just my favourite bookshop, it is my favourite place.

And its address is largo Torre Argentina 11, Rome.

Now first a few words about the largo Torre Argentina. It is a square situated on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. It houses the tram terminus in the centre of Rome, a famous Theatre and, I suppose not unimportantly, the location where Julius Caesar was murdered. If you walk left from the bookshop along the Corso you encounter the Jesuit mother Church, where the spectacular marble tombs of St Ignatius Loyola and St Francis Xavier face each other in a baroque affirmation of the triumph of the counter-reformation. Walking on (avoiding an excellent Guinness Italia establishment where I have, from time to time been shamefully diverted) you come to the Piazza Venezia, where Mussolini cast his spell over a willing populous and, beyond that, the Victor Emanuel monument to Italian Unity which, with a suitable degree both of scepticism and admiration, the locals refer to as "The Wedding Cake".

Back to the bookshop and turn right and you quickly encounter the Church of Sant Andrea del Valle, where Puccini set the first Act of Tosca; carry on and you eventually reach the Ponte Sant'Angelo and over that San Pietro. Walk instead directly ahead from the bookshop and to the left lies the ghetto where, if you can ignore the rather tragic security presence you can eat spectacularly well; to the right San Carlo and then the Campo di Fiori. Student Bars, a flea market and great freshwater fish restaurants.

And all this within ten minutes walk.

But that's only part of the reason I love this bookshop. It has a coffee bar. Now, for all the fixed beauty of Italy: The natural wonder of the rolling countryside and the azure of the Mare Adriatico; the constructed beauty of the hill top towns,  the art and the sculpture and the thousands of years of architecture; the olfactory beauty of the food and wine. For all of that, the real beauty of Italy is the people. And nowhere do you see that to better advantage than in a fahionable cafe or coffee bar.

I am assured this is truly observed to best advantage in "really fashionable" Italy, which apparently exists only from Bologna northwards. My experience is not yet sufficiently comprehensive to comment on that. I can only say that if one wishes to observe the interaction of those who combine the world of the intellect with a residual and unquestioning acceptance of the need to present una bella figura, then, in my experience, you could do no better than to find a quiet corner in this particular coffee bar. Bury yourself in the European Edition of the Guardian and none of the beautiful people will even pay you the slightest attention. Or at least that's my experience.

But even then. that's not really why this is my favourite place in the whole world of my experience.  This man (please, please click on the link) founded Feltrinelli, initially a publishing house, latterly a chain of bookshops. No harm to Tim Waterstone but I bet he can't boast a CV like that.

That's why I love Feltrinelli bookshops. The location is a bonus. The Coffee Bar a further bonus still.

And that's why the realm of ideas will always hold more attraction for me than any mere location on a map. And less uncertainty.

See, I said we couldn't discuss nothing but independence for the next two and a half years.

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