In June 2016, Orell Füssli’s The Bookshop closed its Bahnhofstrasse store doors for the last time. Readers of English books howled and gnashed their teeth: the shop itself had been a hub for English-language reading culture since its opening in the 1930s.
Overnight, the shop was cleared out, its stock and staff relocated, to be absorbed into Orell Füssli’s flagship for German-language books, across the street in Füsslistrasse, on the third floor.
A wayward bookshop moves back home, to live with its parents. And then what?
There’s something interesting about a story that circles—however tightly, however loosely. This is the story that (like most others) is anchored from the start of its telling in a place and an action. It’s an action that is borne of friction: in the world, between characters, or internally.
Are we returning to the beginning so soon?
Yes … and no. And here’s the fork: this type of story pauses at the moment of friction, where others would stride onwards. Will I resist? it asks. Or will I stop to examine? It spends time at the point of decision.
The characters in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse have spent the first part of the novel in various states of introspection. In the first of its three parts (The Window) Mrs. Ramsay performs one action: she looks at her husband. In this moment, she feels friction. She feels it, she pauses, and she digs.
What is it that’s bothering me? I’ll go ahead and examine that, because—to me—it is important.
Woolf elaborates. The tone has been set, and the story meanders—inwards and outwards—driven less by its plot, now, than by its themes and imagery. By a willingness to look discomfort in the face, and to discuss. Marriage. Children. Men. Women. Love. Discontentment.
We hold the driving question with us as she meanders: Is it possible to reach consensus? Is it possible we can never see an object—an event—as others see it?
“To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilization so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bend her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said.” (Woolf, p.37)
Not everyone is comfortable with this internal story. The world of someone else’s ideas with none of our own contextual anchor can seem irritatingly irrelevant. If there is no promise of real-world dividend in our time-poor lives, it’s hardly worth the investment. We want to solve a crime. We want quick resolution. We want to switch off our device feeling we’ve achieved more than simply displacing the endless glut of emails; one folder to the next.
And so we refuse to suffer the writer who doesn’t get to the point fast, who spends time building the storyworld. We are impatient if the ideas are nebulous. We call it navel-gazing. We call it indulgent. It doesn’t pay off, because it’s not actionable.
Actionable or not, a dividend may come in many forms, sometimes when we least expect it. Or—perhaps more accurately—from the places we’re least likely to look. Because we each carry (along with our neatly quantifiable IQ, CV and instagrammed moments), a past that is peculiar and unique to us alone. A backstory filled with our own particular failures and foibles and nebulous insecurities that sit alongside our joys and triumphs. And sometimes, when we read a passage of literature from a genre or writer we’ve never considered reading before, we are transported from our here-and-now—the story we carry with us. Our experience won’t be the same as our neighbour’s, because we are ourselves, not our neighbour. We are the Mrs. Ramsay and they are the Mr. We remember the wisp of a dream, perhaps, that we dreamed as a child. An overheard conversation between those we love. These are the spurs that pull us out of our here-and-now and into the place of … Of what? Our deepest selves?
Go there if you dare.
And so I circle back to the bookshop. The one that moved home to live with its parents after a lifetime of living alone.
When I visit The Bookshop in its new home, I am weary. My teenaged children have had me up late, troubleshooting; my own publishing deadline is looming; the rain has made my mascara run, and my middle-aged-lady reading glasses are fogged. These are the plot points of my life. When I enter the store, I inhale and take a moment to absorb the new environs. It’s the same. But it’s different. It’s still the largest English bookshop in Switzerland, and—so far—it has survived. Despite digital, with all its downloadable, side-loadable immediacy. That, at least, is consolation.
Automatically, I browse. I’m on the prowl for something, though I don’t know what. And that’s when I see it: a note peeking out from between the pages of a freshly-pressed novel. Hands-down the most magical Young Adult book of 2016. It’s signed by a member of staff, whose hand-written recommendations I’ve come to trust over the years. I look up, hoping, perhaps, to see her, but she’s elsewhere, and it’s business as usual: customers in the Travel section, a huddle of women discussing a crime novel, various other staff dealing with sales, and children on their knees, lost in the pages of a picture book. It’s reassuring. It’s different, but it’s the same. And it leaves me to get on with the task of discovery. Because a lot has happened since the last time I was in here. I am the same, but I’m different.
I love Virginia Woolf a bit like I love children. I love her, even when I find her irritating. I love that she dives with such determination and agency into places some of us find irrelevant. I love that she turns her characters on a penny and—in one tiny plot point—fills five pages of prose.
I especially enjoy speaking and hearing her name: Woolf. The gentleness of the word as it begins, and the threat of a howl as we utter the double-o. Never mind if we never hear the end of it. We do, of course, hear the end of it, because every word begins and every word ends. But it doesn’t matter if the ‘f’ is cut short, because the word itself is an adventure. Or maybe I’m simply talking about life.
Libby O’Loghlin is co-founder of The Woolf. She is a novelist a prize-winning short story writer based in Zürich, Switzerland.
Banner image courtesy The Bookshop’s Facebook page.