The Persephone Bookshop 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, WC1N 3NB
If you know of Persephone and their wonderful work rediscovering and printing neglected 20th Century classics, you will know what to expect from their bookshop: beautifully designed, delicate, feminine and done with impeccable taste. Persephone’s shop and office on Lambs Conduit Street matches their books right down to the grey frontage. The house style, of a plain, dove grey cover and discreet title on cream label, makes Persephone’s books gloriously distinctive and their choice of titles really makes them stand out as a publisher. Since 1999, Persephone have published 96 titles, ranging from fiction, poetry and memoir to cookery and even children’s books.
The shop is small and intimate. The soft lighting, pale furnishings and fresh flowers create a homely and welcoming atmosphere.
Each title is shelved in a pile along with a bookmark to match its end papers, the pattern of which is inspired by vintage fabrics and chosen to reflect the style or period of the book, and a brief blurb to explain the plot. Hand-wrapped titles in pink tissue paper and ribbon are available for impeccably efficient gift buying. The shop stocks all available Persephone titles, as well as cards and a very small selection of books from other publishers; books which the staff at Persephone have enjoyed and think compliment their titles.
Since Persephone’s office and bookshop share the same space, you are able to get recommends from the people who have worked so hard to get the books back into print. Miki, part of the publishing team, told me about her favourite Persephone title, The Home-Maker:
‘Written by American author, Dorothy Canfield Fisher in 1924. The novel, set in New England, describes Evangeline, a housewife and stay at home mother of 3 children. She has OCD, as you would now identify it but then she was seen as a perfectionist and quite tyrannical in the home, although well meaning. Circumstances change within her marriage, so that she goes out to work and her husband stays at home and looks after the children. He is a Montessori dad who gives them the space they need to grow up, it sounds quite mundane but it’s beautifully written. It’s very feminist, but not in a self conscious way.’
Most (but by no means all) of Persephone’s titles were written by women in the early to mid-20th century. Each title was popular in its day but had fallen out of favour, and print, until they were rediscovered and reprinted in a high quality edition. The reasons for their declining fortunes vary; there were paper shortages during and after the war; many printers were bombed and the original books lost in fires; others suffered due to changing trends and fashions.
All the titles sound so enticing that the only problem with Persephone’s books is deciding which to read. I am sat with the catalogue next to me and it’s making it almost impossible to concentrate on writing. Each time I dip in for “research”, I find something else that I have to read: a novel about a dog by Virginia Woolf, or a social comedy by her husband, Leonard. There are feminist novels, written well before Betty Friedan or Germaine Greer were even born; radical meditations on family, identity, and domesticity. Or a poetry collection with the irresistible title It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life. Honestly, I haven’t been this excited about a catalogue since I used to flick through the Argos catalogue as a child and you can’t get much higher praise than that…
If you are overwhelmed by the choices on offer, there are 10 Persephone Classics available, identified by the paintings on their covers. These titles are priced at £9 and, since each one is a Persephone favourite and bestseller, they are the perfect way to begin your own exploration through the catalogue.
So how does a company, so committed to rediscovering the past, plan for their books’ future? Well, in response to reader demand, Persephone have just produced e-book versions of 9 of their titles. Miki told me that while creating a book that is a pleasure to hold, look at and place on a shelf is an important part of their business, the contents of each book is the most important thing. Therefore, if Persephone are able to gain a larger readership by releasing e-books, they must move with the times.
Persephone publish novels written by authors of varying nationalities, but what really appeals to me are the novels based in London. Books like Denis Mackail’s Greenery Street, which recounts 1920’s Chelsea in a wonderfully Wodehousian style, or Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton, with its vivid descriptions of London’s architecture before 1940, make you treasure the city’s past and start to actively hunt out areas that look like “old” London.
Bloomsbury is one of the places where you don’t have to try too hard to imagine the old London, so it is fitting that Persephone’s shop is nestled among the brown-brick 19th century terrace buildings on Lambs Conduit Street. I must confess to never having heard of the street before visiting Persephone, but I will be sure to return; it’s the sort of place that makes living in London endlessly appealing. Filled with independent shops, grocers, cafés and restaurants, Lambs Conduit Street is the perfect place to spend a Saturday afternoon. This video from Monocle should give you an idea of what to expect.
Persephone have two monthly book groups, meeting on a Wednesday and a Thursday, they also run evening and lunchtime events and a yearly lecture. You can find details of events in their Biannual magazine, which you can receive by joining Persephone’s mailing list, the magazine is free and includes articles, reader reviews and a short story. If you don’t live in London, Persephone books should be available through your local bookseller, or you could purchase them directly from their catalogue or website. I must also suggest following their blog, The Persephone Post, which provides a thought provoking image or idea each weekday; I’ve really enjoyed this weeks series of Meredith Frampton portraits.