I decided when I first walked in to Books & Bagels (or Shakespeare and Sons) that it would become my safe haven in a city I didn’t belong to yet. I didn’t know where to begin walking in, so overwhelmed was I by the colourful texts, surrealist Czech postcards, pretty Penguin notebooks and, of course, the tactically placed Chomsky. As I sat down I felt inspired. It was as if they had everything here, everything I wanted to get my hands on and read, all these famous names I’d heard of and felt an affinity towards. I walked up and down the passage, picking up a book here and there, feeling at ease and confident. I belonged here. I knew these names. I had a connection to the place because I could recognised what it offered me.
I think it was the third time I’d been in to work in the café area when a German lady came into the shop. She sparked an interaction with a male barista, asking him a question in German and pointing to the books. His reply was brusque, short, uncomfortable, a commonly used stock-phrase “Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut“. As the lady continued to speak in German she was spoken over by this barista who had now reverted to English, “Sorry. This is an English bookshop. English.” As he said this he gestured to the books and then continued this gesture with a gaze that swept to the door, a gaze that was not followed by his hand but might as well have been, for it carried with it the unspoken “please leave”. He could not understand her and so she had to leave the bookshop, having been spoken to as if it were her own problem, the not knowing of English, which needed to be rectified.
The quasi-conversation between the two people who could not communicate with one another left me with an uncomfortable itch, an itch that was not only acutely contained in this scenario that played out in front of me, but also more widely spread, until I felt, myself, guilty. As a frequent customer I am complicit in the machination of this expat goldfish bowl, where I can speak my own language without having to go the slightest bit outside of my comfort zone. My confidence when I walk in is possible only because I speak English. I understand. My confidence took on an almost imperialist arrogance.
But I like Shakespeare and Sons. I like that I feel welcome, and I especially like their bagels. I like that here, I can read the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker in a beautifully designed yellow hardback book without having to buy it and if I’m lucky I can sit in the back room undisturbed. In the back room there are French books and Scandinavian thrillers and “no laptops allowed”. Some of the books here are are second hand and occasionally people walk in to flick through a novel or use the toilet. The large windows make it difficult for passers by not to look in, so I will often catch a gaze or two, sometimes looking for a little too long because it’s fun and nothing will come of it. Most of the time, though, it’s just me.
Here what inspires me is the quiet, the solitude, not the impressive array of names on the shelves. When I’m here I can hide among the rejects, the books that didn’t make the selection, in quiet satisfaction. But it is here, also, where I hide from this uncomfortable feeling, from my educational privilege that I can so easily deviate from; for I can only feel this way, this comfortable, this confident, with the reassurance that I belong in a bookshop brimming with sparkling editions of Butler and Foucault and Spivak. To romanticise my solitude and to leave it there would be to deflect from this knotty issue which I still haven’t fully digested myself. I’m not sure what exactly it was that irked me so much about the quasi-conversation between the barista and non-customer, but I think it must be tied up with my mother tongue. I wonder how different this would be in their bookshop in Prague, or in a country where English is not very widely spoken at all, for I think the power dynamics between German and English are perhaps not as pronounced or divergent. Does the “English” status of the place then become more of a defining feature? A place for English tourists to not only escape, relax, unwind, but, more than anything, exclude?