The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
Many of us dream about setting up our own bookshop. Mine would be full of armchairs with blankets strewn over them for chilly days, it would have standard lamps and floor length vintage floral curtains. There has to be a tabby cat and endless cups of tea. I am not sure that I would make much money from this enterprise as customers would be encouraged to stay, read, talk and enjoy the books with a slice of cake.
Florence Green has a similar idea. She decides to open the only bookshop in the small Suffolk town of Hardborough, where books have not been sold since the last bookseller knocked down a customer, with a folio, after a row over Dombey and Son. Undeterred, Florence buys the Old House and quickly moves in, only to be confronted by the local ‘patroness’ Violet Gamart who had her sights on the Old House for a local arts centre.
Florence quickly finds that trying to establish the only bookshop in Hardborough is not simple. With the help of the ten year-old Christine Gipping, Florence establishes the Old House Bookshop lending library – but the wrath of Violet Gamart does not waver and is exacerbated when Christine raps her over the knuckles for jumping the queue. The final straw is when Florence and Christine create a window display entirely out of copies of Lolita. A battle of wills ensues and Florence fights the natural and supernatural forces that do not want a bookshop in Hardborough.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1978 and I can certainly see why. Her portrayal of small town politics, the nuance of local tradition and odd characters is stylish and uses a low-key tone that matches the steadfast yet mild protagonist. Florence Green suffers from forces beyond her control but as the reader is told ‘she had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation.’
Despite the politics, poltergeists and put-downs experienced by Florence, The Bookshop has not muddied my dream of the Bloomsbury Bell Bookshop. And in fact, it might be one of the first books that I will stock.