We’re chuffed to feature the London Review Bookshop in our latest Brickseller interview. Located in London’s Bloomsbury, the shop boasts more than twenty thousand genre-spanning titles befitting the LRB, which opened its namesake store in 2003. Over email, bookseller John Clegg charmed writer Amy Stupavsky with his cheeky British wit.
Brick: How did you get your start in bookselling, and how did you come to work at the London Review Bookshop?
John Clegg: Not much to tell—I don’t know anything about my parents. The Sisters told me I was found in a Bertrams’ box [Bertrams is a British wholesaler of books] on the doorstep of the Bury Place Foundling Hospital for Orphans of the Book Trade. By the time I was thirteen, I’d memorized every ISBN on the Nielsen BookScan. A year later, the London Review Bookshop hired me as a stamp-licker. At that time, bookseller positions were highly coveted, and advancement was only possible by single combat. I blacked both eyes of a young Jeff Bezos—current CEO of Amazon.com, for those who don’t know—who limped out of the shop, swearing that he’d get revenge on the whole pack of us. From that day on, I was part of the team.
Brick: Why did the London Review of Books decide to start a bookshop? What makes your store unique?
John Clegg: The shop is off the main drag, wide-ranging, engaged, enthusiastic—whether those are unique qualities or not, they’re the values we approve of and try to embody. As for the decision to branch out into bookselling, I’ve spoken to David Lea, our deputy manager who was part of the founding team, and he said that there “seemed to be a strong appetite for a bookshop that reflected the values and attitudes of the magazine, an appetite which wasn’t being served by the chain booksellers of the time.”
Brick: Tell us about your patrons. Who comes to visit? Do you have regulars?
John Clegg: Members of the London literary establishment are always in the cake shop, drinking strong black coffee and sewing up the prize shortlists. There are plenty of regulars, all of them terrifyingly knowledgeable; chatting with them over a cup of tea and a bun is one of the high points of the job.
Brick: What’s your favourite item in the store?
John Clegg: I can’t decide. Books-wise, it’s probably Shamanic Regalia in the Far North by Patricia Rieff Anawalt. It has astonishing photos and is a beautiful production. In terms of items in general, it’s the life-size straw man Gayle Lazda, one of our booksellers, made for a window display. He now has pride of place in the back office. If the shop was on fire and I could save just one thing, it would have to be Charlie.
Brick: What sells best at your store? What is the most popular reading material these days?
John Clegg: George Monbiot’s Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life—about reintroducing large animals into the UK—is doing very well in paperback. Everybody’s talking about the mysterious Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, who we suspect is a pseudonym for James Wood.
Brick: Bloomsbury has a storied literary history. What is the best part about inhabiting that milieu?
John Clegg: Walking into work past William Empson’s old digs on Marchmont Street, and thinking about the time he had Sylvia Townsend Warner for afternoon tea and they toasted crumpets over a Bunsen burner.
Brick: What excites you about London’s literary community?
John Clegg: Its astonishing capacity for mid-priced white wine.
Brick: We’re living in the age of Amazon, e-readers, and the message that “print is dead.” Are booksellers necessary?
John Clegg: None of the best things in life are strictly necessary, surely. The “print is dead” mob has been banging that tiresome drum for decades—and I understand sales of e-readers and e-books are stagnating.
Brick: Not to toot our own horn or anything, but—toot, toot—what do you think of Brick?
John Clegg: It’s an absolute joy—we always look forward to seeing what you’ve dug up. The Mavis Gallant retrospective was superlative, a fitting tribute to the best short-story writer in the language. I just wish it would come out more often!
Brick: If you could be any writer, living or dead, who would you be and why?
John Clegg: If it were just for a short period of time, I’d be Dan Brown. As soon as I’d possessed him and gotten comfortable, I’d ring up the shop and spend his vast fortune hand over fist. If it were for a mid-term period, I’d choose Colin Dexter, so I could get my Inspector Morse fan fiction published. For the long haul, Lena Dunham seems young, healthy, and rich enough to guarantee a pretty comfortable life. I don’t see any benefit to being a dead writer.
Brick: List three books and three magazines you’d want with you on a desert island (and why).
John Clegg: Poetry’s a pretty good choice here, isn’t it? Good for rereading. I’ll take Robert Frost, for his rugged self-sufficiency; Elizabeth Bishop, for her clear eye and good humour (both essential for island living, I’d imagine); and John James, for his playfulness and daftness. As for magazines, it would be rude not to have a subscription to Brick; the lightly worn erudition and intellectual heft of PN Review would surely be a blessing in monsoon season; and Private Eye [a satirical British news and current affairs magazine] to keep the blood hot and the mind abreast of villainous goings-on back home. The London Review of Books could pile up on the doormat, as it does anyway.