By Paul Grant
On support for the indie bookshop.
“Much Binding” is a small bookshop on the North Norfolk coastline. Tucked away within the folds of a former Victorian seaside resort, it occupies a pivotal position within the current chapters of my life. Its owners are friends and I have, on occasion, had the pleasures of sustaining its fortunes in their absence.
The shop sells an assortment of objects and collectibles aside from books, but it is essentially a bookshop offering a breadth and depth that encompasses most tastes. There is also an Antiquarian dimension and as you may have guessed, this is a shop with a mind of its own. The proprietors are, and the overall style is, staunchly independent. However, this is not a tale of bookshops or the eccentricities of respective buyers and sellers. Instead, this is a short history of one particular book. The book is Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham.
I just happened to be wandering through the fiction section a few days ago when my eyes alighted on a familiar spine. Having sold many books to the shop in recent years, the chances of it being one of mine was not especially slender. My first instinctual act was to open it at some random point and insert my generous snout into its pages. It was mine. What I had hoped to find was exactly what lay buried silently in that space between all texts. A book always tells more than one story. There is what the author wrote and then there are the personal histories that accompany that initial tale and make each copy unique. Deep within the languorous inhalation lay a palace of memories—memories both joyful and sad.
I remember buying the book at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, 2005. It was an exceptionally sunny day. Following the breakdown of a long and fundamentally happy relationship, I had moved northwards. I was alone and without employment. I thought a few books would be good company for a while. Living in Stockbridge within a romantic sounding mews barely a fistful of blocks from Princes Street, I eventually worked off and on in a variety of guises. What claims to be the best hotel in Edinburgh and the British Council were briefly employers of mine, but the inability to find anything that wasn’t exploitative or temporary resulted in a long stretch of inactivity for me within the “new” new labor market. Despite the efforts of faithful friends and the indulgence of parents it would be fair to say that I came close to madness, during those six months. One thing I am certain of today though, is that globalised cities are no place for a forty-something whose hide has been thinned by a decade of rural living (even if your gaff is only a stroll away from the Water of Leith walkway). A snooty city in so many respects, this walkway is one of the best kept yet least patrician of her secrets. But I am straying from the central tenet of this story—a book.
The book is a signed first edition and I had forgotten that it bears an inscription from myself to someone I had become emotionally involved with shortly before I moved to Edinburgh. Over time this relationship also broke down. I think we are now friends (or friendly) and “Much Binding”, the couple who owns it and the contents of its shelves, are the denominators we still have in common. Of course, whoever eventually comes to buy this book may wonder at its inscription. Who are they? But the more appropriate questions to ask would be: Who was he? Who was she?
It is the nature of living stories that they often fail to fit the covers we would like to give them. Similarly, over time we cannot fail to notice that objects are frequently tougher than people and often have a longer shelf life. So if books need a spot of binding from time to time, what about their audience?
A well bound book is a delight to behold and certain books do have the wherewithal to make excellent companions. That such relationships can constitute part of the essential binding in life without which our fragile stories might fall apart seems a sensible proposition to me. What anyone acquiring this particular book will definitely fail to see if they are only using their eyes, is that this book is also a flower. A rose, to be precise.
As a certain Little Prince was once reliably informed by the fox he had tamed:
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye. […] It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes the rose so important. […] Men have forgotten this truth”, said the fox. “But you must never forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.”
I suspect the author knew only too well that such seeing comes at a price. To live from the heart generally entails dying from it too.
So visibly or otherwise there is much binding in life.
This short history of a book, a shop, a flower and a fox is part of the rich stitch in time that binds me to today, yesterday and tomorrow.