HELLENIC BOOKSERVICE AND THE 'SPIRIT OF PLACE'
Articles on Greece by AURELIA
The Hellenic Bookservice is rather small in comparison to behemoth bookstores such as Waterstones and Dillon's in the U.K. and Barnes and Noble and Borders in the United States, but this specialty store in London has something that can be found no where else and can be offered by no other bookseller. It has an elusive quality, a mysterious singularity, and nourishing attributes. Taken together, these qualities make it quite special, indeed. These qualities create what is called 'A Spirit of Place'.
The phrase 'spirit of place' was coined by Lawrence Durrell, prolific novelist born in India, but reared in England, to describe his travel writing about Greece. He described this 'spirit' as a 'pervasive atmosphere' about a particular place or landscape that evokes distinctive emotions in us and connects us as human beings. When one's senses approach this rarified level, according to Durrell, it is a 'transcendent experience' that forces one to 'travel with the eyes of the spirit opened wide.'
Most people with keen sensitivity to their environment who have traveled to Greece have experienced what Durrell so brilliantly described. But how many people have found this in a book store?
This unique 'spirit of place' first articulated by Durrell can be found in a magical book store tucked away in Northern London. It is a specialty store established about fifty years ago and still run by the same family. It is the perfect store where bibliophiles go to find the most recent, the most ancient, the most difficult to find, and the rarest of books on Latin and Greek subjects. It has the largest collection of books on the classics of any store in the U.K. and it is now the only such specialty book store in London. It is the one and only store of its kind, perhaps in the world. It is The Hellenic Bookservice.
About thirty per cent of its titles can be purchased online by visiting http://www.thehellenicbookservice.com. But nothing can match the experience of browsing through the store.
With more than 16,000 titles on three floors, one can browse for hours and lose one self in a treasure hunt for books on Ancient History and Art, Byzantium Mythology, Ancient Religion, Cyprus, Crete, Greek Holiday Traditions, Modern Greece, Ancient Greece, Latin Literature and Poetry, Greek Literature and Poetry, Modern History, Travel, Theology, and Language.
The small staff is knowledgeable, accommodating, and multi-lingual. They will take you by the hand and guide you to the section where you are likely to find the book for which you are searching. And'.if you happen to find an edition of The Blue Guide to Greece, for example, or a recently reprinted version of Kimon Friar's Modern Greek Poetry, the staff member will explain politely that perhaps you would prefer less expensive, second-hand copies and, if so, they can be found on the third Floor. Or, If you go to the desk to pay for the hardcover copy of Robert Fagles', The Odyssey, you will be told that the store carries it in the less expensive paperback version as well. The choice is yours.
The Bookservice has the most extensive collection of books on learning Modern Greek that I have ever seen. Staff members can advise, also, which book or system is best for you, according to your level of literacy in the Greek language and your particular needs.
The store is a distinctive meeting place that attracts kindred spirits. It is a place where scholars, students, laymen, authors, actors, lovers of the classics, and an assortment of vagabonds (who always browse, but seldom buy) come to meet and blend together in a warm and welcoming space that is uniquely for their interests. It is almost impossible to be in the store for any length of time without engaging in a stimulating conversation with a stranger who, like you, is perhaps half way up a ladder seeking a title on an upper shelf, or is stretched on the floor trying to read all the titles on the lowest shelf.
The famous and almost famous have passed through the narrow portal at 91 Fortess Road, just a short walk from the Tufnell Park tube station. And those who came years ago as students now visit as authors. Hellenic Bookservice staff members proudly take the authors about the shop, showing them where their books are displayed.
Sir Lawrence Olivier visited once to purchase books for his personal library. A patron who was browsing while I was on my treasure hunt said she was sure she spotted the famous English actress, Helen MIrren, there 'just the other day.' I myself entered the store shortly after Margaret Williamson, author of Sappho's Immortal Daughters, left. What a thrill it would have been if I had been able to ask her to autograph one of her books for me, as I have a collection of books on Sappho in my library.
The Hellenic Bookservice does not have a place to sit and have a cup of tea (yet), but there is a pub nearby where you can relax over tea or a pint with fellow bibliophiles, or, if you are very lucky, a member of the Bookservice staff. For me, the conversations in the pub have been worth the trip to London.
One afternoon near the close of business, a producer from the BBC visited the Bookservice to talk with one of the store's partners, Stelios Jackson, widely recognized as an expert on Crete, and I was lucky enough to be invited to join them at the pub for the discussion The woman was gathering information for a BBC documentary on Greece and we were still talking when the bell rang in the pub to signal the closing hour. It was one of the most stimulating exchanges I have ever enjoyed, including those from my college days with the most learned professors.
Founded in 1966 by Photini Constantinou, the store was in central London on Charing Cross Road for the first twenty-four years. When the lease could not be renewed, it moved to Tufnell Park in a three-story, corner building. Two years ago the store added a basement warehouse and the store and the staff are slowly growing.
Mrs. Constantinou, an avid reader who loves Greek poetry, literature, and history, was a true visionary. She was the pioneer who founded the store in response to a need she saw for a specialty book store featuring books on classical subjects. She is still an active partner and can be seen from time to time examining the stock. Other partners are her daughter, Monica Williams, and her grandson, Stelios Jackson. They are assisted by their staff of men and women.
More than 600 schools in the U.K. order class books from The Hellenic Bookservice, an arrangement that happened almost by accident. A professor in classical studies, Mr. Peter Jones, had been invited to make a presentation at a conference on 'Reform in Teaching Latin' at one of the colleges in London. But when his train was delayed in New Castle, the conference organizers contacted Mrs. Williams and asked her if she could fill in as a speaker.
This was the beginning of hundreds of presentations Mrs. Williams has made to educators since then. She is in demand as a speaker at colleges, universities, and at private schools throughout the U.K. the schools range from the Barbicon School for Girls to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. She takes a large variety of books with her for review by the teachers and soon after her presentations the orders start to come in from all over the country. Mrs. Williams believes she has been in almost every school in London. With a keen business sense, she astutely built this side of the Bookservice's functions slowly, but steadily.
Her son, Stelios, was just six when she first took him to Athens, and he quickly developed a love for Greece and then for Cyprus, where his maternal grandparents were born. As he matured, he read extensively about Crete, and has a great passion for The Great Island that is infectious. In the summer of 2002, he walked Crete coast to coast, east to west, and is writing a diary that appears on the Interkriti web site. Visit http://sjwalks.interkriti.org
Mr. Jackson is sought after as a reviewer of books on Crete and his reviews appear regularly on the web site 'Explore Crete.' Visit http://www.explorecrete.com He has been published, also, in the prestigious Anglo-Hellenic Review. Visitors will find Mr. Jackson and his Mother in the store on most days, except when they stand in for each other during holidays spent in Greece or Cyprus.
To spend time in The Hellenic Bookservice is to be part of a unique and distinctive environment where delectable treasure troves of knowledge are at your fingertips and can be savored by leafing through book after book. As you hold a book and turn the pages, there is a sense of becoming one with the author or the theme of the book. This sensation parallels Durrell's comment that in certain landscapes 'you suddenly feel a bounding with ideas.' The atmosphere at Hellenic Bookservice creates this effect.
As with many businesses today, the mammoth chains have taken over the book industry and cold, impersonal service has replaced the warmth and friendliness of the old fashioned family-run stores. Not so at The Hellenic Bookservice. It is
unique. It has a rarified essence that creates a spiritual connection. It is run by three generations of close-knit family members who have an enduring love of Greece, of Hellenism, and of reading. And it is this trio of special people, a grandmother, a mother, and a son, who have enabled pilgrims making journeys from afar to visit their bookstore and be in touch with the ethos of what is surely a precious 'spirit of place.'
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