#03 March 2017 – Bookseller Crow on the Hill, Crystal Palace

This month’s professional bookworm is Jonathan Main of The Bookseller Crow on the Hill. Famed for its friendly, intelligent book selections and subscription service, Bookseller Crow is proud to be part of the passionate local Norwood community. With over 30 years bookselling experience, Jonathan (and co-owner Justine Crow) have used their unstuffy attitude to transform 1,000 square feet of books into an extension of their home. Comfy, full of crow-themed extras, and always caressed by great music (the booksellers have been caught having a boogie on a few occasions…), this is the place to go for modern fiction, American lit and graphic novels. There is also plenty on the history of the local area, plus a good healthy dose of “odd ball stuff”. As their Facebook page proudly states, Bookseller Crow is all about “hand-baked artisanal logarithms – no robots telling you what books you might fancy”. It’s the shop’s 20th birthday this year, and there are shed-loads of superb events lined up in celebration – including a fantastic creative writing course starting in June.

His three big books

‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald: I grew up in a home that had very few books in it, and any bookishness in my childhood was pretty much due to the local, very good, Carnegie Library. Aside from The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, the books of Malcolm Saville and Alan Garner, and later (passed on to me by a benign uncle) Desmond Bagley and Alistair Maclean, the first book that really connected with me was ‘The Great Gatsby’. Fitzgerald became the first author to be something more to me than a name on a book jacket, and reading his book was the first time I realised that a novel could be used for something more than the simple telling of a story – evidenced in his ambition to do something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned. In addition, it became my gateway drug into the world of modern American literature. Pretty soon I was mainlining Saul Bellow.

‘The Stories of John Cheever’ by John Cheever: I remember opening a box in one of the first bookshops I worked in and finding the newly published ‘Oh What a Paradise it Seems’ – not the author’s best book, but he was still (just) alive at the time and it lead me to recall an interview with him on a BBC 2 program with Robert Robinson. Cheever was wearing a bow tie as I remember it, and a white jacket, and he looked every inch the distinguished patrician American writer. Which by then, was what he was. ‘The Stories of John Cheever’ is the book I have opened and read more often in the last 30 years than any other, and perhaps imagining myself to be one day stuck in a lift, or a snowdrift or a flooded town, it is the only book that I have permanently filed on my phone. Of course Cheever lead to Updike, and later to Raymond Carver, with whom I once had the pleasure of a conversation regarding his sequel to Cheever’s ‘The-Five-Forty-Eight’, a story called ‘The Train’, published in the collection ‘Cathedral’.

‘The Magic Toyshop’ by Angela Carter: At art school I became interested in a group of British post-war writers that included John Berger, Alan Burns, B S Johnson, Ann Quinn and Angela Carter. At the time, most of Carter’s work was either out of print or, if you could find it, published with garish pseudo- science fiction covers. She was yet to be rediscovered and to settle back in south London to write her later major works ‘Wise Children’ and ‘Nights at the Circus’. Twenty years later, I opened a bookshop in Crystal Palace where ‘The Magic Toyshop’ is set. The actual toyshop as it existed is now my accountant’s offices and, in addition to selling a paperback and a hardback ‘gift’ edition of the book, we also offer an elegant mug based on the cover design of the hardback courtesy of her publisher Virago.

His two contemporary titles

‘Little Caesar’ by Tommy Wieringa: Of the twenty or so books I have so far read this year, I have been most impressed by ‘Little Caeser’ by the Dutch writer Tommy Wieringa. Adroitly and – considering the breadth of adventure, spanning Alexandria, the Netherlands, Morocco and Los Angeles and including high-class pornography and maniacal land art on a grand scale – subtly published by Scribe who, aside from a central motif of crumbling Suffolk cliff side, give away very little of the contents of the story on the back cover. Had it been published in the late 70s the cover art would have been very different indeed.

‘A Line Made By Walking’ by Sara Baume: I have also really enjoyed Sara Baume’s ‘A Line Made by Walking’ – a title taken from a work of art by the British landscape artist Richard Long, itself an extemporisation on a description of the act of drawing by Paul Klee, ‘Taking a Line for a Walk’. Baume’s book is the story of a solitary young artist who having become unmoored, attempts to re-anchor herself – partly through her recollected accounts of the art works of others, that may or may not explain her relationship to the world.

The one on his ‘to read’ list

‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout: The book I am most looking forward to next. I have carried a torch for Strout for the last ten years or more. All through the grim years of hand-selling her early books with their dreadful soft focus covers that hid her flinty brilliance and gave no indication of her inner Richard Yates. This book appears to be a companion piece to her last novel ‘I am Lucy Barton’, which was a small masterpiece.

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