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Persephone Books: A woman’s vision realised

There are still single-minded independent publishers dotted around Britain, quietly doing great things with the minimum of staff or the specialist departments of the London-based conglomerates. One of these is Persephone Books until two years ago was tucked away in Bloomsbury, just a short walk from Mecklenburgh Square, home to Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press back in 1917. I met with Persephone’s founder, Nicola Beauman a little while back, to talk about how it all started. There is a scene in the classic British movie Brief Encounter (below) where Cecilia Johnson (as Laura) is collecting a book she had ordered from the Boots Library – yes, Boots had its own libraries in the 1940s/’50s. 

6a00e5532538c48833022ad3dec09e200b-800wi“Miss Lewis had, at last, managed to get the new Kate O’Brien for me. I believe she’d kept it hidden under the counter for two days.” LAURA, 'BRIEF ENCOUNTER' (1945)

Nicola Beauman kept that image in her head when she was formulating her idea for Persephone. What books would Laura have read and loved? Now in its 25th year, Persephone has gone from a few hundred enthusiastic readers back in 1998 to over 30,000 today. And what occurred to me while talking to Nicola is the fact that she has created the true meaning of a ‘brand’. It is a complete reflection of what she believes her publishing house should be, down to the last detail. No committees, just her. It is such a delight to know that this kind of independence still exists in this crazy age. Ironically, the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press is now part of the conglomerate Random House.

Nicolabeaumanrecently

“...whether they are on an office desk, by the Aga, or hanging in a bag over the handles of a pram, it is important to take pleasure from how they look and feel.”

NICOLA BEAUMAN ON PERSEPHONE BOOKS 

Persephone hunts down neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-20th-century women writers and now has 150 books in print. It is located in a little shop on Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury. Here, everyone, including Nicola Beauman, often glimpsed behind a vase of freshly cut flowers, sits working away in the space. The lighting is warm and at a low level. On the walls are an eclectic mix of posters from the 1920s to ’50s, juxtaposed with a classic Massimo Vignelli wall calendar, along with aprons and mugs for sale.

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The original Bloomsbury shop interior.

Below that are shelves filled with Persephone books, sporting their distinctive grey covers. “I don’t like book covers,” Nicola told me over a croissant and coffee in a nearby cafe, but what is very clear is that she does care. There is an intuitive sense of style ticking away in her heart. She takes great care of her books’ production. Printed in Germany, the process uses what is known as ‘dispersion binding’ – this allows the book to open and lay flat, with none of that irritating springing shut. The endpapers are carefully selected textile designs sourced from the period of the novel’s publication. The distinctive grey covers (below) were inspired by the New York coffee shop Dean & DeLuca’s cardboard cups.

6a00e5532538c48833022ad3991e3e200c-800wiThe original Bloomsbury-based Persephone shop was instantly loveable, with all of Persephone’s staff making it their place to keep in touch with their customers on social media and running afternoon events throughout the year where authors and books are discussed. Persephone is one woman’s vision realised.

Here is their new Bath-based shop, looking every bit as charming as the old Bloomsbury one.

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Persephone Books are at 8 Edgar Buildings, Bath BA1 2EE

 

 


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