Tuesday, March 13, 2012

English Bookstores Abroad: The Albion Beatnik, Oxford

(technically, this column was meant to cover English bookstores in non-English-speaking countries; however, The Albion Beatnik deserves to be an exception).

It is to my great shame that, despite having lived four years in Oxford, I have never before entered the Albion Beatnik bookstore on 114 Walton Street. As a devotee of second-hand bookshops, charity shop classics (which, in Oxford, seem to be confined to a ridiculous number of Virago Modern Classics and disproportional interest in Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence), and (it must be admitted), downloading Free Classics onto my Kindle, I had always mournfully assumed that the shiny books at Albion - specializing in my personal favorite genre of "bizarre 19th and 20th century fiction with a bohemian edge" would be far out of my gradstudentmeetsfreelancewriter price range. I assumed - quite idiotically - that going to the Albion Beatnik would be rather like going to (the somewhat overrated) Blackwell's: I would sigh longingly over copies of favorite-press New York Review Books Classics (the stuff of dreams!) that I could no way afford.*

Yet - on Sunday's visit with the VEB - I discovered to my great rapture that The Albion Beatnik has a second-hand section. A full half of the shop is devoted to an exquisitely curated selection of secondhand books, combining the affordable prices and rag-tag exploration of the charity shop (books range between 2 and 3 pounds) with the specialist quality of a generally Good Bookshop. Secondhand discoveries included Primo Levi's The Sixth Day (purchased, two pounds), Natalya Ginzberg, some lesser-known novellas by Colette, the poetry of Lawrence Durrell, and even a copy of a novel by my other-favorite-press (which, to my eternal regret, no longer accepts contemporary manuscript submissions) Dedalus Books. 

The section of new books, while less affordable, is maddeningly tempting: European Literature in Translation (!) receives a good half of the shop, divided by country/region. Not only is this scope for more NYRB Classics and Dedalus (and hence my slow descent into destitution), but it also necessarily presages many more hours of pawing fruitlessly at copies of Bizarre Central European Fiction of which I have never previously heard. (Attention, friends-who-like-to-buy-me-things: if it has a "senseless yet melodramatic plot" set in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire possibly involving melancholia or faded grandeur, I will probably read it.)

And yes, there is a coffee shop! Not - mind you - a Costa, but an informal "choose your own teacup, sit in a comfy couch" setup. Teas and coffees are a mere two pounds per pot; flavors are plentiful and include a properly sweet black chai. If I weren't so terrified of the imposingly clever proprieter, I might even bring my laptop to work on Novel Revisions. (I might compromise and bring along the decidedly less-offensive Alphasmart)

Thus have I discovered my new favourite bookshop in Oxford. I've been unable to make the writers' meetings in the past due to Play Commitments, but I'm eager to start attending events there in earnest!

*Yes, Blackwell's has a second-hand section. No, it is not affordable.


Anonymous said...

Well I am very glad that you enjoyed the shop. I am the 'proprietor' and actually I wasn't there on Sunday. So it could be that I'm not so 'imposingly clever'! Laptops are welcome, come again...

Fleur Flaneur said...

Oh dear - there was another imposingly clever gentleman who seemed to be In Charge Of Things at the moment (I eavesdropped a bit, I'm afraid - he spoke at great length to another customer about literary translation and Portuguese novelists, if I recall correctly!) But the ambiance lends itself well to imposing cleverness (and delicious tea!) overall! I'm back in Tbilisi now for a month but will be sure to revisit the shop on my return! (and start budgeting for NYRB and Dedalus classics...seeing so many in one place is tantalizing!)

Anonymous said...

Hi Fleur,
Nice article… I am Georgian, and I have been unconditional devotee of the shop since I first discovered it 2 years ago… and I assure you – the proprietor IS imposingly clever, even if he keeps denying it :-)
What took you to Georgia? It would be great to meet you some day in Albion Beatnik (I live in Spain, but I happen to be in Oxford 3-4 times a year).

Ray said...

Hi FF I'm the Imposeur Himself, the proprietor's sunday help. We are to publish a literary anthology shortly and would like to use a bit of your bookshop blog perhaps and maybe something else. Please get in touch via info@babelguides.co.uk best Ray

AK47 said...


Dennis, the owner, is cool. Go talk to him. He is like a kind giant.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't but agree - excellent eclectic range of books, strong on 20th/21st century music too