London's small book publishers
In an industry almost entirely dominated by big boys and blockbusters, it's a delight to discover the delicate charms of the capital's little literary imprints
Beautiful endpapers are a hallmark of Persephone's publications
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Persephone BooksThe floors are wooden and the walls decorated with vintage railway prints. Classic FM pours soothingly from the radio and books – of course – are piled high. Lamb’s Conduit Street has always been praised for its ‘village atmosphere’, but Persephone Books, at Number 59, is like stepping into Hay-on-Wye. Appropriately named after the Greek goddess of the underworld, Persephone is both independent publisher and retail outlet. Most of the shop’s stock is their own: resurrected fiction written predominantly by women during the inter-war years which had either been neglected by larger companies or gone out of print altogether.
Nicola Beauman started the list in 1999 after developing a passion for little-known books by authors like Dorothy Whipple and Susan Glaspell while she was at home bringing up her children. The heroines she discovered were, like her, ordinary middle-class women who had gone to university but abandoned the academic life to raise families. Despite the books’ everyday scenarios and accessibility, there was something quietly profound about them, and she felt sure they would speak to other women. As her office manager, Emily Hill, puts it: ‘It was feminism with a small “f”.’
Among the 70 numbered titles are more obscure tales by well-known writers such as Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Other names are less familiar but have proved their worth by selling well, thanks, in part, to Persephone’s staff who excel at communicating their enthusiasm for the books to customers. Design is very important to Persephone: each book has an elegant dove-grey cover and its own distinctive endpaper with matching bookmark taken from a fabric issued in the year the book was originally printed.
'Now, where did I put that book...'
Persephone started life in Clerkenwell. Now based in Bloomsbury – spiritual home of the bluestocking – it makes a quarter of its money from shop sales. Another quarter is made selling to wholesalers who, in turn, sell on to big players such as Amazon. The remaining half comes from mail order sales via a 10,000-strong mailing list which extends all over the world, from France to South Africa.
Until now, Persephone has published two ‘new’ titles each quarter – the next new ‘installment’ (as faithful subscribers to their Quarterly view it) is in April. However, these will shortly become biannual for a while to allow a new venture, Persephone Classics, to be launched. These will be smaller and blurb will be added to the back covers. (They are still debating how the endpapers can be retained and transferred to the front cover – a vertical band of pattern running down the side of the front cover is a strong contender.) Their stalwart fans were alarmed by this development, and wondered if Persephone was about to sell out. Hill says not: ‘We want to make it more democratic and to reach more people.’
Bestseller ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ by Winifred Watson (20,000 copies).
Persephone Books, 59 Lamb’s Conduit St, WC1 (020 7242 9292/www.persephonebooks.co.uk) Holborn tube. Open Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, alternate Sats 12noon-5pm.
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