Today a cool March light is giving way to a humid afternoon, and I have just left the Anthony Frost English Bookshop in Bucharest, which has closed its doors. The reaction from the Bucharest’s passionate reading community has been shock and grief, as though a well-loved relative not seen for years has suddenly announced their death.
The city has no high street. No classic stores. Only chains and shopping malls. And a few dusty outlets that refuse to die. There is nowhere to take pleasure in retail. Only to browse, buy and leave. The enterprise with a unique identity, personal service, product knowledge and impeccable store design is absent.
But Anthony Frost was an exception.
Set up in 2008 by three Romanian friends with a fascination for the English language, the shop was hidden in an arcade opposite the Kretzulescu Church on Calea Victoriei, with a view onto the site of the 1989 Revolution.
The owner, Vlad Niculescu, has been welcoming readers for almost a decade. Vlad knew the business. Knew the books. Knew the customers. You could be looking for anything from The Letters of Edward Gorey & Peter F Neumeyer, to a biography of prog-rock band Van Der Graaf Generator, or Tove Jansson’s adult fiction, and Vlad would stock it, had read it, and would tell you why it was vital, important, necessary.
Other bookshops in Bucharest can impress with their superficial professionalism: they have beautiful architecture that plays with space and light – but they pile up books like boxes of detergent, or shove them into shelves, packing them in like onions in a wooden crate. The staff know little. Or do not care. These stores are no more than book deposits with flashy design.
But like its French counterpart Kyralina, this was a hub of delight for the English word in a city centre still caught between the menace of Communism and the hollow promise of its inheritor. It was run by people with experience of a time when certain book ownership was an insurgent act, who knew how essential it was to bring to Romania a well-turned phrase, a convincing argument, and a measured dialectic. Who knew that this was a key part of an arsenal to fight an abusive power.
This place gained international repute. It hosted readings for kids and adults, signings from foreign authors, and was included in a Penguin book by Bob Eckstein, ‘Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores’.
In an atmosphere where thousands of years of literature are repackaged as self-help advice that can be clipped and snipped into captions that fit into a phone screen, this was a platform that showcased the epic, the profound, the difficult. Here there was joy in the complex.
And never has this been more needed that today. With the Anglo-Saxon world now retreating into a primitivist shell of tribalism, distrust and contempt for literacy and expertise, an English language bookshop in Bucharest is an act of political defiance.
The people of Bucharest liked Anthony Frost. They needed Anthony Frost. But people aren’t reading enough books in Romania. And they aren’t reading them in a foreign language. Nor on paper.
Stock would remain for years on the shelves. There was no passing trade, as customers often only came by word of mouth, or were lost tourists looking to be directed somewhere. And that key client who comes in every week asking for a new recommendation, who needs the regular hit of a book, was elusive.
But for many grieving readers this was a place that brought them an emotional connection. Entering the store was not just walking inside a bookshop, it was joining a book-loving sect. For me, this is the place where I educated my son to love words.
One day in October a few years ago, he refused to go to Kindergarten – to even set foot in the building. He hands were clinging to the doorframe. I had to prize his fingers free. He wrapped his arms around my legs. I had to wrestle them away. To force him to stay. But just as I thought he was safely settled with the teachers, he ran back outside. He screamed. He cried. And I gave in. I took him out of the building. A bad parent. A cowardly parent. A pushover parent.
And we walked the streets of the city. Up and down Stirbei Voda. Into Cismigiu Park. But he did not like Cismigiu Park. We walked to the playground. No, he didn’t want to play. A cafe? He did not want to go to a cafe. Home? No – we are outside now. We stay outside.
He only wanted to go to Anthony Frost Book Shop.
And it had just opened for the morning. And Vlad was there. And my son took his place, up on a high chair at the back of the shop, opposite a table with a tiny blue vase hosting shards of lavender. And Vlad brought coffee for me and a full plate of biscuits for the boy.
And I stood there, reading aloud ‘The Missing Piece’ by Shel Silverstein to my son, while he munched on snacks and poured crumbs on the floor.
This picture story follows a circle with a segment cut out of his body, who searches for a piece to make him complete. We sang the lyrics of the songs in the book. We turned the pages. To see what happens. The circle has adventures. He bumps into stone walls. He falls into holes. He finds pieces that he tries to fit into the gap in his shape. But none suit him. Then he finds his missing piece. They are happy together. But he realises how much he loves his adventures. So he dumps the piece. And continues on his path, alone and incomplete.
This fable is messy, ambiguous, and morally questionable.
And my son was quiet. So was the shop. And all was right with the world.