English books and bookshops in Brussels

Browsing in a second-hand bookshop, you never know what you’re going to come across, and that’s one of the things I like about them. If you want to sell books or give some away, this is also the place to go. So here’s a small selection of bookshops in Brussels that sell either new or second-hand books in English. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

Tulibris

Tulibris opened in October 2015 in a little side street off Chaussée d’Ixelles/ Elsensesteenweg, close to the town hall of Ixelles/Elsene. So it’s not on main street, but it’s definitely worth making a detour to go visit the shop. It not only has a good selection of fiction and non-fiction titles in very good quality, but it also has a certain style that makes it stand out. Opening hours vary from one day to the next (literally), so be sure to check before you go there.  Address: rue de la Tulipe 25 Tulpstraat, 1050 Brussels. Tel.: 0475 293 123. Opening hours: Mon. 13:00-16:00. Tues. 11:00-18:30 Thurs. 11:00–18:30 Fri. 11:00-16:00 Sat. 11:00-18:30. Sun. 12:00-20:00. Closed on Wed. and Sun.

Evasions expanded its English section quite a bit in recent months: you’ll find it on the first floor. They have some good titles at decent prices, and the shop is generally packed with buyers and sellers. Address: rue du Midi 89 Zuidstraat, 1000 Brussels. Tel.: 02 502 49 56. Opening hours: Mon.-Sat. 10:00-20:00. Sun. 12:00-20:00.

FiligranesFiligranes expanded substantially in 2015, and the English section is now in the shop’s right wing as you enter. As you can see from the shop’s floor plan above, the international section is quite large and is not limited to English-language books. Address: avenue des Arts 39-40 Kunstlaan, 1040 Etterbeek. Tel.: 02 511 90 15. Opening hours: Mon.-Fri. 08:00-20:00. Sat. 10:00-19:30. Sun. 10:00-19:00. Website: Librairie Filigranes.

Fnac has stores both uptown (in Toison d’Or) and downtown (in City 2). Although neither place exudes much charm, this is the place to go if you don’t like surprises since both stock a rather traditional range of titles. Address uptown: avenue de la Toison 17a-20 Guldenvlieslaan, 1050 Ixelles / Elsene. Tel.: 02 402 26 26. Opening hours: Mon-Thurs. 10:00-19:30. Fri. 10:00-20:00. Sat. 10:00-19:30. Address downtown: City 2, 1000 Brussels. Tel.: 02 275 11 11. Opening hours: Mon-Thurs. 10:00-19:00. Fri. 10:00-20:00. Sat. 10:00-19:00.

Het Ivoren Aapje (‘The ivory monkey’) takes its name from a novel set in Brussels by the Flemish author Herman Teirlinck (1879-1967). I haven’t read the novel, but perhaps I should give it a try since I do like visiting this shop. Located on a quiet square opposite the beautiful Béguinage church downtown, the place looks (is?) dusty and a bit run-down, but it has a great selection of titles in English and other languages at good prices. Address: place du Béguinage 4 Begijnhofplein, 1000 Brussels. Tel.: 02 219 46 86. Opening hours: Tues.-Sat. 11:00-18:00. Facebook: Het Ivoren Aapje.

Nijinski has, as far as I can remember, quite a decent selection of second-hand books. I haven’t been there in ages, however, since all books have non-removable anti-theft stickers which, although they might prevent people from stealing them, also disfigure the books. This is a pity, since the shop is housed in a very nice building. Address: rue du Page 15-17 Edelknaapstraat, 1050 Ixelles / Elsene. Tel.: 02 539 20 28. Opening hours: Mon.-Sat. 11:00-19:00.

Oxfam has two bookshops in Brussels, one in Ixelles and one in Uccle. Both stock a wide range of English fiction and non-fiction titles. The books are generally in very good condition and reasonably priced. The thing I like about both shops is that titles don’t stay on the shelves for long, which means there are always new books to discover. Address Ixelles / Elsene: chaussée d’Ixelles 254 Elsensesteenweg, 1050 Ixelles / Elsene. Tel.: 02 648 58 42. Opening hours: Mon.-Sat. 10:00-18:00. Address Uccle / Ukkel: rue Vanderkindere 248 Vanderkinderestraat, 1180 Uccle / Ukkel. Tel.: 02 344 98 78. Opening hours: Mon.-Sat. 10:00-18:00.

Passa Porta Bookshop is located in Passa Porta, the international house of literature which organizes literary events in Dutch, French and English. The shop has a pretty decent selection of titles in English and other languages. Address: rue Antoine Dansaertstraat 46, 1000 Brussels. Tel.: 02 502 94 60. Opening hours: Mon. 12:00-19:00. Tues.-Sat. 11:00-19:00. Sun. 12:00-18:00.

Pêle-MêlePêle-Mêle has two stores, one downtown and one uptown. The downtown branch has a good English section at the back of the shop with a good turnaround, so there are always new books to discover. The only thing is that it gets pretty stuffy back there, and the place rarely if ever seems to get aired. The more recent branch uptown in Ixelles also has a good selection of English titles on the first floor, and the setting is substantially nicer: it’s spatious and bright. So both are worth a visit. Address Ixelles / Elsene: chaussée de Waterloo 566 Waterloosesteenweg, 1050 Ixelles / Elsene. Tel.: 02 548 78 00. Opening hours: Mon.-Sun. 10:00-18:30. Fri. 10:00-21:00. Address Brussels: Boulevard Maurice Lemonnierlaan 55, 1000 Brussels. Tel.: 02 888 95 44. Opening hours: Mon.-Sat. 10:00-18:30. Website: Pêle-Mêle.

Sterling Books used to be spread over two floors and had a nice coffe corner. These days it’s limited to two rather small rooms and there’s no coffee corner, but it’s still a good address to buy English-language books.. Address: Wolvengracht 23 rue du Fossé aux Loups, 1000 Brussels. Tel.: 02 223 62 23. Opening hours: Mon.-Sat. 10:00-18:30. Website: Sterling Books. Facebook: Sterling Books.

Bouquinerie Thomas is located between Rond-Point Schuman and Place Jourdan. The shop not only extends quite far back but also stretches over the width of two houses. There are a lot of English fiction and non-fiction titles (besides other languages too). The books are reasonably priced and are all generally in very good condition. Address: rue Froissart 13 Froissartstraat, 1040 Etterbeek. Tel.: 02 513 89 66. Opening hours: Mon.-Fri. 12:00-18:00.

Tropismes has a pretty small English section, but it is one of the most beautiful bookshops in Brussels so if you’re in the vicinity it’s well worth dropping in. Address: Galerie des Princes 11 Prinsengalerij, 1000 Brussels. Tel.: 02 511 56 51. Opening hours: Mon. 13:00-18-30. Tues.-Fri. 10:00-18:30. Sat. 10:30-19:00. Sun. 13:30-18:30. Website: Tropismes Libraires.

Waterstone’s Brussels is located in the city centre close to Rue Neuve and City 2 and Place Rogier. The shop has a large although fairly predictable range of fiction titles, and an extensive range of non-fiction titles, newspapers and magazines as well as DVDs. They recently started stocking some French titles too. Address: Boulevard Adolphe Maxlaan 171-75, 1000 Brussels. Tel.: 02 219 27 08. Opening hours: Mon.-Sat. 09:00-19:00. Sun. 10:30-18:00. Facebook: Waterstone’s Brussels.

Bookmarks7007Les Petits Riens is a non-profit organization committed to the fight against poverty and exclusion. They have various stores across the city, but in their main shop in the Châtelain area in Ixelles they sell everything from furniture and clothes to toys and household appliances. They also have a large bookshop on the ground floor, with a substantial English section covering fiction and non-fiction titles at very good prices. Address: Rue Américaine 11 Amerikastraat, 1050 Brussels. Tel.: 02 537 30 26. Opening hours: Mon.-Sat. 12:00-17-30. Website: Les Petits Riens.

TreasureTroveTreasure Trove is the place to head for if you’re in Tervuren, on the outskirts of the city, and if you’re looking for books in English for children and young people between the ages of 0 and 17. Visit their website to get a feel for the place. Address: Brusselsesteenweg 7,
3080 Tervuren.Tel.: 02 767 74 76. Opening hours: Tues.-Sat. 10:00-18:00. Sun. 11:00-17:00. Website: Treasure Trove.

AudivoxAudivox is a place I rarely visit. In fact, it’s a place I often forget exists. The Brussels shop is tucked away in a narrow street behind the Grand Place. It specializes in teaching materials and school books, but only has a small selection of fiction and non-fiction. And if I’m not mistaken, they don’t take bank cards, only cash. Address: rue de la Violette 25 Violetstraat, 1000 Brussels. Tel.: 02 512 87 04. Opening hours: Mon.-Sat. 09:00-12:30 and 13:30-18:00. Website: there is none.

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Alain de Botton’s Kiss and Tell

There was a short piece in The Guardian last week in which the author, Daniel Kalder, draws attention to works that writers themselves – and not governments, say – have tried to ‘suppress’. The examples Kalder gives in ‘When writers censor themselves‘ extend from Virgil to Mark Twain, Gerard Manley Hopkins to Gogol, Philip Larkin to Kafka. It’s a rather motley selection of writers, and the reasons listed by Kalder to justify their decisions – pride, neurosis, religion, embarrassment – no less so. Still, it was funny to learn about two works that their living authors would rather soon forget about: Amazons (1982), a novel about a female hockey player by Don DeLillo who was writing as ‘Cleo Birdwell’, and  Invasion of the Space Invaders (1982), a book about arcade video games by Martin Amis.

Kalder’s article reminded me of another work that has also been ‘suppressed’ by a living author, albeit one who distanced himself from the world of fiction some years ago: Kiss and Tell, by the Swiss-born writer and philosopher Alain de Botton. Published by Macmillan in 1995, there has only been one UK paperback edition, issued by Picador in 1996 (pictured left). A few years ago I wrote to de Botton to ask him about this, after discovering that there was no mention of the novel on his website. He pointed out that it was a work he was not particularly proud of, and that he preferred to direct readers to titles he was happier with. Fair enough. And although there is still no mention of the novel on de Botton’s website – nor indeed, as he pointed out at the time, of his novel The Romantic Movement – second-hand editions are widely available.

If I mention the book at all, it’s because Kiss and Tell is a novel with pictures much in the tradition of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a mock biography that comes complete with table of contents, preface, tables, drawings, an index and a series of photographs. Unlike Orlando, however, the subject of this pseudo-biography fails to come alive, no thanks to the narrator-biographer himself, of course. Accused by his (ex) girlfriend of being an egoist, he decides to make amends and show some empathy for the next person to step into his life. This turns out to be the 25-year-old Isabel Rogers, who soon becomes his (new) girlfriend. Starting his work with the traditional chronological beginnings, his narcissism soon gets the upper hand, however, and his portrait of Isabel is rapidly hollowed out to make way for his various reflections on the art of writing of biographies, leading to his new approaches, studying the contents of her fridge, for instance. Some of this is mildly amusing and vaguely interesting, but the problem, I found, was that the novel has been stripped of its core, and the narrator’s musings are not enough to fill the void. De Botton underlines this point himself, I think, by leaving out any photograph of Isabel as an adult, although he includes pictures of her family, friends, lovers and pets.

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Michel Faber’s The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps

Michel Faber’s 2001 novella The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps (Canongate, 2001) centres on a 34-year-old parchment and paper conservator named Siân who is spending some time on an archaeological dig at Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire. During her stay, she meets a final year medicine student called Magnus (or ‘Mack’) with a passion for jogging and a dog called Hadrian. Through Mack, Siân receives a scroll of papers kept in a bottle which he inherited from his late father: it’s the bloody confession of a whaler turned oil merchant named Thomas Peirson, dating from 1788, and which Siân is going to unravel.

Ever since her arrival in Whitby, however, Siân has been having a recurrent nightmare in which a man with disquietingly large hands slits her throat, and it is indeed with such a beheading that the novella opens. Is the nightmare in any way tied to the ghostly abbey whose ruins dominate the city from atop the 199 steps? Or is it linked to the town of Whitby itself, since this is where the ship carrying Count Dracula is said to have run aground? Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Siân lost a leg during the Bosnian War when she was shielding her journalist boyfriend from an oncoming car (which boyfriend went on to dump her before being killed by sniper fire…)? Or the fact that she has cancer? Or the fact that she was declared clinically dead and has ‘seen the light’? Or perhaps it’s because she has a piece of Bosnian tarmac still stuck in her thigh, a piece which has been slowly making its way to the surface of her skin?

This reader, for one, had the nagging impression that Siân’s nightmare was simply due to the fact that she’s a character in this nightmarish novella in which everything is so poorly constructed, so improbable, so unreal that one really can’t escape from it soon enough.

It’s a good thing, then, that some measure of escape is offered by the various colour photographs included in the book – or in the first, hardback edition at least, published by Canongate in 2001, since they have been omitted from the subsequent paperback editions. Paradoxically, it seems that it’s because they have been so heavily coloured that they seem more real, more believable: they show that things are not always what they seem and as such leave room for the reader to believe in them (whereas Siân’s story is so unreal that it’s impossible for the reader to believe in it).

The pictures are said to have been digitally manipulated by Daniel Kratz from original photographs by Eva Youren (Faber’s wife, who used infra-red film), Faber himself and Keith Wilson (the latter was artist in residence at Whitby Abbey during the summer of 2000, and asked Faber to come and write a short story inspired by the English Heritage dig).

For a selection of pictures comparing Whitby in the early 20th century and now, this website has an interesting selection of postcards and photographs.

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Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America

I first read Daniel J. Boorstin’s 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America a dozen years ago in this Vintage International 25th anniversary edition dating from 1987. Although it’s now been half a century since the book came out, no 50th anniversary edition seems to be in the works – which seems unfortunate, since it is certainly a worthwhile read.

The Image provides a remarkably lucid overview of “pseudo-events”, i.e., events such as press conferences or presidential debates manufactured for the sole purpose of being reported. Paradoxically, as Boorstin points out, since these pseudo-events are more controlled than ‘natural’ events, they “tend to be more interesting and more attractive than spontaneous events”, thereby threatening the very reality of our reality.

Boorstin covers a wide range of pseudo-events. The celebrity, the “human pseudo-event”, is nothing more than “a person who is known for his well-knownness”. The biggest news about Charles Lindbergh, he writes, “was that he was such big news”. Boorstin also surveys tourism (providing insight into the rise of the Thomas Cook travel agencies and Baedeker guide books), literature and the arts (from best-sellers to the music provided by the Muzak Company – “music to hear, not to listen to”) and business (noting that in the 1950s already, most people “like advertising [and] expect to find it in their magazines”). In the last chapter, Boorstin evokes the “menace of unreality” that threatens America, “the danger of replacing American dreams by American illusions”.

As I leafed through my copy of The Image, I came across the article below, which I had torn out of the Financial Times Magazine dated 14-15 August 2010. The photograph (copyrighted to AP) shows Nikita Khrushchev holding a turkey at the Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland. Andrew Mueller, the author of the article, informs us that this ‘event’ was chosen by Peter Carlson (in his 2009 book K Blows Top) as an early example of the ‘pseudo-event’, “an occurrence contrived purely to accrue  publicity, something which would not happen were cameras not pointed at it”. As Mueller further writes:

Today, much of our news is, essentially, a series of pseudo-events: government initiatives, unscientific surveys by attention-seeking commercial enterprises, staged photo opportunities by celebrities. They are all gratefully reported, reinforcing time and again the sorry truth that (most) news organisations are rarely happier than when someone is sparing them the trouble and expense of finding stories themselves.

The “menace of unreality” Boorstin evoked in The Image is as present now as it was then, and Boorstin is clearly as relevant today as he was in 1962.

Update: since writing this post, I’ve learned that a 50th anniversary edition has in fact been published by Vintage, which is great news. It’s definitely worth reading.

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Ross Miller’s Chicago

Ever since learning that Ross Miller, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut and the editor of Philip Roth’s work in the Library of America, is working on the official biography of Philip Roth, I have been waiting for it with great anticipation. I was hoping that it would be released in 2011, but unfortunately, this didn’t happen. Since it doesn’t seem likely that it will appear soon, I’ve decided to console myself in the meantime with Miller’s The Great Chicago Fire (University of Illinois Press, 2000). Initially published in 1990 by the University of Chicago Press as American Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Myth of Chicago, this book explores the myth building that surrounded the fire that destroyed Chicago in October 1871 and the rebuilding of the city.

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Barbara Hodgson’s The Tattooed Map

I’m always amazed at what I can come across in second-hand bookshops. Today I found a copy of the heavily illustrated / documented first novel The Tattoed Map by the Canadian novelist Barbara Hodgson. First published in 1995, a year before the first English translation of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants was published, this novel tells the story of Lydia, a woman traveller in North Africa who awakens one morning with a mark on her hand: the tattoo soon grows into a tattoo that turns out to be a map of an unknown territory. It contains a lot of visual material, from colour illustrations and maps to black and white photographs, from manuscript notes to printed documents in foreign languages. In this it seems both similar to and utterly different from what Sebald was doing, but it might still be worth reading.

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Anne Carson’s Nox

The Canadian poet Anne Carson’s brother Michael died in Copenhagen, Denmark in the year 2000, some 22 years after he had left Canada to avoid going to jail (what for remains unsaid, but he seems to have been involved in dealing drugs). During this time, he had little contact with his sister or their mother: a few laconic postcards, a single letter, at most half a dozen telephone calls to his sister. At the time of their mother’s death, three years before Michael’s death, she had not received a letter from him in seven years, and had started to think he was dead: “When I pray for him nothing comes back”. Carson and her mother stop talking about him. When he calls some six months after the mother’s death, he has, Carson says, nothing to say. His name was Michael, but she tells us that he changed it (his family name at least, it seems). What his new name was remains unsaid.

Carson learned of her brother’s death two weeks after it happened, when his widow found her phone number among his papers. Carson then travelled to Denmark, met the widow, learned that his ashes were scattered at sea near Helsinor castle. From his widow she received a translation of the text of the funerary service, of the priest’s speech and of the widow’s words, as well as diaries and photographs. Carson then created an epitaph, she says, in the form of a book, consisting of a word-by-word translation/ interpretation of a poem by Catullus on the death of his brother (poem 101). The lexical entries filled the left-hand pages, while the facing pages contained memories, reflections, fragments of letters, photographs and other materials. In an interview earlier this year with The Irish Times, Carson explains that she met a German publisher of art books who proposed to release a facsimile copy of it. Nothing came of it, however, and she only recovered the manuscript three years later, in what must have been 2004 or thereabouts. Nox, the book published by New Directions in 2010 and whose cover is shown above left, is, Carson says, a replica of that original book, or at least, “as close as we could get”: an accordion-like assemblage of text and photographs.

Nox was well received when it was published last year – see for instance these reviews by Meghan O’Rourke in The New Yorker and by Andrew Motion in The Guardian – but it doesn’t really do it for me, and this, not least because of the utter disconnect between the format of the book and its very contents. Indeed, there could hardly be a greater discrepancy between the weight and voluminousness of the book itself, on the one hand, and the lightness or emptiness of its contents, on the other. The accordion-like text comes in a cardboard box: the entire object weighs a total of 1.2 kg. Of course, one could say that it’s more than just a book, that it’s the book as artefact or as object. And Carson is certainly entitled to take pleasure in the fact that it is “un-Kindle-isable”, as she said in the above interview. But that in itself doesn’t make for a good book.

Catullus wrote poem 101 for his late brother he had not seen in many years, and he too travelled far to visit his grave. It’s striking that such a short poem – a mere ten lines! – could be at the very core of this weighty object. I liked Carson’s idea of creating a lexical entry for each word of the poem and providing a translation and some context, always related to nox itself, the night. Catullus’s poem is dissected, disassembled and enlarged under Carson’s microscope, as it were, but the trouble is that there is nothing there. Like Nox, Catullus’s poem 101 revolves around an absence, a void that has only been made larger by time and space. However, Catullus, despite the concision of his poem, manages to open it up by concentrating on the funerary service itself, and thus his nameless brother can stand for any dead brother, any funeral rite. Carson, by contrast, in attempting to provide some fragments of her brother’s life, merely highlights her very real ignorance of his inexistent life, as it were. I realize that this is precisely in part about the difficulty or impossibility of knowing someone else, yet here this is all I get out of it: the sense that she really does not know who or what she is writing about. Neither the extracts from his letters or diaries nor the photographs can fill that void, and neither can the weight of the book itself.

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