Three months with Desperate Literature

...and all this time I didn’t even know I was desperate: Three months with Desperate Literature

I begin this piece from a desk inside the shop, cool and sheltered from the forty-degree heatwave currently dusting the city. By mid-afternoon, the sun is already dangerous. I imagine that, just like the previous three days, after my shift, I’ll be staying in the back room until dark.

To feel sheltered here seems suitable for Desperate Literature. Second to being a bookshop, it is also a home. It’s a home for people wanting to find new books, people wanting to hide away for a time, and people who might want to talk. It’s also an actual home for friends of the shop – tumbleweeds these are called, as in the tradition of Shakespeare & Co. – travellers who lend a hand for two hours a day in exchange for a bed, sometimes read at events, and generally leave something of their own personality behind when they leave. You might smell their morning coffee through the back room if you chance upon the shop early enough, or hear the chatter of domestic life as it spools out through the kitchen. Their presence, along with the plants and the handwritten notes displayed across the shop, maintains a fresh atmosphere that breathes new life throughout the shop daily.

On a quiet morning like today, this might look like just a nice and quaint bookshop to you. The display of books outside might tell you they still care about influential authors of the 20th century, such as Marquez and Woolf; then the ‘hot cakes’ section you see as you come in might tell you that they care about literature pushing important ideas and perspectives, such as a selection of Audre Lourde’s essays, and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race.’ There is also, should you continue to pass around the special editions and the three shelves overflowing with poetry, almost an entire corner dedicated to Ursula le Guin, which might give you some idea of the shop’s egalitarian ideals.

But on the evening of an event, the shop transforms. Drinks are served and people huddle together crossed-legged and sometimes even spill out onto the street as musicians play or poets perform, and always discussions are invoked. It is as people come together and share the shop becomes the community hub it really is, a place that is always inviting new people in, and with them, their ideas. (Next year the shop is hosting 40 poets over one week, all performing poems on the theme of poetry and exile.) Only rarely have I felt literature to be so dynamic and alive.

Highlights so far include a merry Bloomsday celebration, with readings from Ulysses in different languages (supported by an Irish folk band); and an English/Spanish poetry reading in celebration of pride weekend, co-hosted with another local bookshop, Nakama Lib. We’ve also heard readings from people as far away as Mexico and Malta, and enjoyed what poetry and technology can achieve together, with a group of Madrileños experimenting with coding, twitter, google reviews and sounds, to compose poems live. There has even been a surprisingly raucous chess night.

But on top of the events, the great selection and fresh atmosphere of the shop, there’s a perpetual openness here that owners’ Terry & Charlotte work hard to maintain. The gap between their private home lives and the life of the shop is indiscernible, and one thing I’ve learned here if I didn’t know already is transparency encourages more transparency – people open up to us all the time here. We share thoughts on books, and with them our own stories, too.

So it’s been incredible to be a part of a community that embraces all the right things and pulls all the punches. All that the smaller shops have to compete with the big and online conglomerates, Desperate Literature has in abundance. And it shows: people absolutely adore this place. It’s not just me.