A bookshop in London sells books not available on the shelves of American bookstores. Persephone Books is a tiny shop on Lamb’s Conduit Street, blocks from a pub called The Lamb where Charles Dickens once drank beer.
The lives and habits of the authors at Persephone are less known than Dickens’, but their books are not lesser. Persephone, publisher and bookseller, finds out-of-print books that are worthy of resurrection decades after the last bound version left the printer. The shopkeepers call one author, Amy Levy, the Jewish Jane Austen. The 1938 novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson became a movie theater hit starring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams after Persephone picked it up and published it again.
I found Persephone Books over Thanksgiving weekend while in London for the wedding of a cousin-in-law. All the books are bound in the same pale gray, but each has a different pattern lining the inside cover—tapestries and hand-painted wallpaper. Each book comes with a bookmark in the same pattern. The shop is so small that it’s hard to move around when more than four customers are inside.
The shopkeeper told me that their main criterion for choosing which books to republish is whether each one is a good read. (I can tell you, they are.) She said that the books went out of print for a number of reasons. The authors may have been overlooked or not gotten sufficient publicity. She said that in some cases the warehouses storing the book stocks were destroyed in war, and the original publishers never recovered. (She also let me use the shop’s employee bathroom, where I found boxes of books and teacups stacked high. The stacks of books were everywhere in the shop.)
Persephone is like a slice of my personal heaven, but I’d never heard of it. It’s been around for nearly 20 years. I went back to the store two more times in two days. Most of the authors are dead, but a few have lived to see their work make it into reader’s hands again.