‘When my mother died, she left me a bookstore. In England, you would call it a bookshop, but I prefer the word store. It suggests a treasure house to me, a place full of riches and surprises.’
So begins Joanna Trollope’s short story ‘Faith’ about three people and their dreams. It’s as perfect as Chekhov, and those five clean words are as evocative as any in literature: ‘. . . she left me a bookstore.’
My own bookstore dream was set in Paris: a shop in the Palais Royale. The gloomy antiquaire-a specialist in military medals and lead soldiers-was retiring after 30 years to his family home in Normandy. The shop was small but beautiful, with French grey walls and a circular staircase that led to an upstairs room, complete with a corner cuisine and a small loo.
My dream was to open an English bookshop called ‘Lives and Letters’. Leatherbound memoirs would line the walls and Chesterfield sofas and refectory tables would furnish the room. At twilight I would pull the curtains and the shop would become my sitting room. Upstairs my single lit-bateau would occupy a corner of the office, complete with the computer needed for an efficient mail-order service. This was a good decade before Amazon and Abebooks but my friend David at Faber and Faber assured me that mail order was the future.
There were a few hiccups in my ‘Lives and Letters’ dream. For a start, I had never sold a book in my life. Indeed, I did not own a computer and, moreover, I had no money beyond what I earned teaching English. I possessed a carte de travaille, a French driving licence (but no car) and paid French taxes but still I was a foreigner, no small drawback.
But the fatal obstacle was the elaborate lease, a relic of the Napoleonic code: the entreprise commerciale could not be a domicile. I could nap there after dejeuner but I could not crawl into bed after my diner. I contemplated ignoring this ancient law but began having nightmares about blackout curtains and a kind of Anne Frank existence, trembling as I brushed my teeth in silent darkness. And even in my wildest optimism I knew I could not embark on an adventure that required two monthly rent payments and uncertain revenue.
Still, whenever I walk into a perfect bookshop the dream comes back to me. It happened again this week in Scotland. Members of our house party had discovered a ‘wonderful new bookshop in Aberfeldy’. While everyone else planned how many Munros they could climb in five days, I plotted my trip to Aberfeldy.
The Watermill bookshop is located in a Grade A-listed stone mill. The miller’s widow turned down countless offers to develop it into housing, but when two Londoners who had recently moved to Perthsire, Jayne and Kevin Ramage, approached her with their dream to create a bookshop and art gallery, she softened: at least the mill would still be a part of the community.
And it is a dream bookshop, a treasure house of riches and surprises. The mill generates electricity for the building. Old library trolleys are fitted with industrial wheels. There’s a reading room, a cafe, a terrace outside and a gallery on the top floor. As Colette (legally domiciled above a shop in the Palais Royale) would have described it: peaceful and exciting.
It took two years to convert the mill from oats to books but in less than two months the Watermill has achieved what devolution and politicians can only dream of: a haven for lovers of the printed word.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on August 11, 2005.