LONDON — Lamb’s Conduit Street seems almost too adorable to be real, as if Ye Olde Fantasy Englande, the one that exists in your head, had suddenly sprung to life. But it feels exactly right that this cobblestone thoroughfare in Bloomsbury, filled as it is with idiosyncratic shops selling artisanal cheese and homemade cakes and other rarefied items, should also be home to Persephone Books, a gem of a place devoted mostly to overlooked works by female writers of the mid-20th century.
Walking into the shop feels for a moment like walking back in time. Vintage posters exhort wartime women to, for instance, Join the Wrens, the British women’s naval service. But the present is here, too. In the window is a blowup of Senator Mitch McConnell’s CreditCharlotte Hadden for The New York Times
What makes a Persephone book?
“I’m pretty allergic to the egocentric idea that it’s all down to my taste, but I have to confess that I have always had this huge interest in early 20th-century fiction by women — what academics would call middlebrow, and I would call a good read,” Beauman said.
“The connection between them is that they were forgotten and they’re very well-written,” she continued. “I’m very keen on story and on page-turners. When I get to the end of a book I like to put it down and feel absolutely wrenched by what I’ve read, to be in a different world.”
Each year perhaps a half-dozen more books join the list, so that there are now 132 in all. All are still in print, and all are still for sale, each for a flat 13 pounds (if you’re ordering from the United States, they’re $20 apiece); every time the new titles arrive, the old books are moved a bit and the shelves reorganized to make way.
After a few seasons as just a publisher, Persephone became a bookstore, too, leaving its old office in Clerkenwell and expanding into its current space. It is both office and shop, one purpose blending into the other across two rooms.
Overall, the shop’s most popular author is a woman named Dorothy Whipple, who has an impressive 10 books on the list, Persephones No. 3, 19, 40, 56, 74, 85, 95, 110, 118, and 127. Her books are funny and spirited and full of insight about real people’s lives at the time.
“I like books that tell me how we lived,” Beauman said. “I’m very, very interested in the novel as social history.” Also, she said: “Good writing is important to me, and that’s why we only have 132 books.”
The books are austerely elegant, bound in light gray paper and unadorned except for the title in a white rectangle on the cover. Beauman was inspired by the plain covers of 1930s Penguin books and the French custom of publishing books with white covers and red writing, she said, while the colors are something of an homage to old Dean & Deluca coffee mugs.
“I thought, ‘Why can’t a book look like this?’” she said.
Or, as it says on the company website: “Persephone books are all grey because — well — we really like grey. We also had a vision of a woman who comes home tired from work, and there is a book waiting for her, and it doesn’t matter what it looks like because she knows she will enjoy it.”
Inside, though, the books are riots of color. Each book has a different endpaper taken from textiles or prints associated with the year in which it was originally published. Some come from the Victoria & Albert museum; others might be fabrics contributed by customers. “Once somebody brought in a wartime scarf, and you could literally smell their mother’s powder on it,” Beauman said.
Persephone has a devoted and passionate following. Some 30,000 people subscribe to its free magazine, The Persephone Biannually, which includes articles about the newest books and other subjects. Its website contains Beauman’s own wittily erudite musings, which lately have taken an alarmed tone because of uncertainty over the fate of small businesses during the protracted debacle that is Brexit, or Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Last month, the company celebrated its 20th anniversary with smoked-salmon sandwiches, tea, Champagne and cake in an all-day party with a steady streams of visitors giving way to a larger crowd at night.
“The idea at the beginning was that if you like one of our books, you’ll like them all,” Beauman said. “That has worked almost entirely. It’s quite rare for someone to dislike any of the books. I hate to use the word brand, but we are something of a brand.”
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