The Persephone bookshop has long been a darling of Instagram, but I often wonder if places like this can really live up to the hype. And, more importantly, whether beyond the like-inducing interiors they can actually do their job – which in this case is something that particularly matters to me. On a recent trip to London I popped in to find out, and came away feeling pleased that here at least substance definitely isn’t trumped by style.
With a tiny shop front on Lamb’s Conduit Street, Persephone is located right at the heart of literary London. The Charles Dickens Museum is just around the corner, and a few streets up you’ll find Mecklenburgh Square, erstwhile home of such literary luminaries as Thomas Carlyle, H.D. and Virginia Woolf (and, incidentally, subject of a new book, Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting). The fact that the latter two were women is particularly pertinent given that this is what Persephone specialises in: ‘neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers.’
The Persephone bookshop is the sales arm of Persephone Books, the independent Bloomsbury publishing house that has now reached an almost cult status in the UK. Its dove-grey covers, between which lie the reprinted words of forgotten or largely ignored women writers such as Katherine Mansfield, Monica Dickens and Lettice Cooper, are often to be found on social media and lists of ‘influential’ books, particularly in feminist-leaning circles. Like many people, my first encounter with them was through Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, the unexpected bestseller which has since become a film and really put the publisher – and bookshop – on the map. That, however, was book No. 21, and with around 135 currently on their list there’s a lot more to explore.
Thanks in no small part to the internet, the bookshop was busy when I visited. A mother and daughter on holiday from Sweden had stopped by to take a look, and later on a small party of Americans arrived. Given the size and general clutter of the shop, it isn’t easy to move around when busy, so if you’re short on time or after something specific it might be a good idea to flick through the online catalogue beforehand and simply ask the staff. Browsing is part of the joy here, though. As each cover looks basically the same, helpful shelf notes give you a sense of what kind of book you’re facing, and you’ll have to actually pick them up to find out more about the author and her (or very occasionally his) writing.
With its creaking wooden floor, soft classical music and neatly arranged shelves of forgotten treasures waiting to be explored, Persephone is every book lover’s dream. The shop is an aesthetically pleasing jumble that anyone who has watched The Hours will probably associate with Virginia Woolf’s bohemian surroundings: stacks of books, baskets of fabric swatches, picture frames arranged haphazardly on a wall, jugs of fresh flowers and a patterned dress hanging on a tailor’s dummy in the corner. The back of the shop is given over to office space and further towers of parcelled-up books sit waiting around to be posted to customers. At the till you can have your purchases beautifully wrapped as gifts, and there are various other bits of merchandise available – cloth bags, postcards and a small amount of stationery. Persephone books are famous for their ‘fabric’ endpapers, each of which is different and comes with a corresponding bookmark, and it’s also possible to buy many of these designs in the form of cushion covers or simply lengths to take home and sew with yourself.
It almost goes without saying that there’s no point coming to Persephone if you’re looking for contemporary women’s fiction or a copy of War and Peace, say, but I was pleased to notice a small sign on a table whose book stacks stood out in stark contrast to the rest. ‘The fifty books we wish we had published’ announced the chalk lettering – something I thought was a very nice touch.
Although it is possible to support Persephone Books through a monthly subscription or to look up and order any of their books online, visiting the shop is a different experience that will really give you a sense of what the publisher is about. It’s a little like stepping back in time here, a tranquil escape from the busy streets of central London that also happens to be easy on the eye. More than this, though, it’s a place to be reminded that it’s not all about the hype – the shop itself might be much-photographed, but the books it sells were once the least hyped of all. Persephone Books does something very important in today’s world: it demonstrates that wonderful things still can come in unassuming packages.
The Persephone bookshop is at 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London WC1N 3NB and open from 10am to 6pm on weekdays, 11am to 5pm on Saturdays, and 12pm to 4pm on Sundays.