Book lovers who find themselves easily distracted may welcome the brutal approach by a new bookstore in London. In a bold move, Libreria has declared itself a ‘digital detox zone’, banning its customers from using mobile phones and tablets within the shop. The ban is part of an endeavour by the store to immerse the visitor in the visceral joys of reading and the pleasure of physical books, as well as to reawaken the art of real-life conversation, debates and talks, a sense of conviviality and a taste of the unexpected.
Visitors to the shop may take photos, but if they’re spotted texting, browsing the internet, posting or communicating with anyone outside the shop’s four walls, they are politely requested to stop. “The rule isn’t enforced in a draconian way, but we do want to create a welcoming space away from digital overload,” Libreria’s Paddy Butler tells BBC Culture. “If you’re doing business on your computer all day, then being in a space full of traditional books allows you to escape, browse, talk about books, and discuss ideas. We all need a break from digital distraction and noise – it’s not good to be plugged in all the time.” So how have customers reacted to the ban of their beloved phones so far? According to Butler, positively: “They mostly say ‘Thank you’.”
We have reached a cultural tipping point with technology
Tom Hodgkinson, co-founder of the Idler Academy, which is collaborating on events with Libreria, “applauds” the ban. “In doing so they present a genuine retreat and refuge, where real books and depth of thinking are privileged over Snapchat and tech,” he tells BBC Culture. “They’ve even got an old-school record player in there which is a nice touch. And The Idler is all about providing a pause for thought and fun in the day, so we’re really looking forward to hosting events in the shop where people can get together and indulge in the convivial pursuit of talking about ideas together.”
Conviviality, perhaps, is the key word. At a recent event at Libreria, guests were invited to ‘swig and sniff’ their way through 20th-Century fiction. While passages by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Patrick Hamilton were read out and discussed, the drinks described in the text were sampled and the relevant scents passed around the audience.
So could it be that people are becoming more mindful of the downside of constant digital connectedness? Libreria’s founders (who also founded a co-working space, Second Home) have said that we have reached a ‘cultural tipping point’, with book lovers rebelling against the ‘digital deluge’. Certainly, it seems that the East London store isn’t alone in its championing of the tangible, communal exchange of ideas.
In London, Review Bookshop in Peckham, Ink@84 in Highbury and the LRB Bookshop are among the numerous bookshops that share a similar approach. And globally, there is a buzzing, buoyant industry being made out of literary talks, philosophical gatherings and open mic storytelling events – from the Moth in New York, to the now-worldwide School of Life.
And it seems that reports of the death of the paper book have been greatly exaggerated. There are signs that some e-book users are actually returning to print, or starting to use both paper books and e-books, alternating between the two. According to the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales fell by 10 per cent between January and May in 2015 – a figure based on data from 1,200 publishers. Certainly, when it comes to browsing, it is the unexpected discoveries to be made in a physical bookstore that differentiate it from the algorithm-led online experience. Serendipity, or “creative collision” as Paddy Butler puts it, can make for interesting connections - looking laterally and outside your usual interests and genres can throw up some surprising choices.
There are signs that some e-book users are actually returning to print
At Libreria this is taken one step further. Books are grouped together to reflect loose themes – ‘family’ or ‘the sea and the sky’ – rather than orthodox categories or genres. “We had a customer in recently who said she only ever read contemporary fiction,” says Butler. “She ended up buying some classic 19th-Century novels, because of the connections sparked by the layout of the shop and the conversations she had with us in the store.” And in a bid to spark further inspiration, the shop has also enlisted guest curators to make selections – including writer Jeanette Winterson and Edwin Frank, editor of the New York Review of Books Classics series.
It all feels very retro – and very apt for a part of London renowned for its sense of history, where traditionally, different cultures first met, and lively intellectual debate took place in England’s first coffee houses. Along with its vinyl turntable, Libreria even has an old-fashioned printing press in the basement – surely the ultimate analogue statement. Still, it’s not quite old-school nirvana. Libreria may be a sensory, real-life, ‘swig-and-sniff’ sanctuary from the bombardment of the modern digital world, but Luddite it is not. It’s somehow not surprising to hear that the store is run – at least partly – using custom-made technology. This is the 21st Century, after all.
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