By Nicky Harman
In the narrow streets opposite the imposing edifice of the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London, there are a host of nooky little shops selling everything from replica antiques to T-shirts to books. But Probsthain’s is special. Founded around 1904 by the eponymous Mr. Probsthain, it’s had a few famous visitors in its time ̶ Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, David Attenborough, and Kevin Keegan for starters ̶ and gets a mention in the 1991 novel The Feather Men by the British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
I have known Lesley and Michael Sheringham, the brother and sister who now run the book shop and the café with their mother, Eve, and Lesley’s sons, Tim and Chris, since the 1970s. In those days, Probsthain’s China shelves held China Mao's Little Red Book, China Reconstructs, and China Pictorial, and we spent a lot of time at the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, debating what was going on in China (which was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution).
When I began translating Chinese literature at the end of the 1990s, I found the book shop a wonderful place to browse, with a decent selection of contemporary Chinese translated fiction. I mention this because I have an obvious professional interest! It was then a rather narrow, elongated space which, if you penetrated right to the back, gave a view onto a miniscule courtyard with a bamboo plant. It was absolutely full, from floor to ceiling, with books old and new about every conceivable subject which could reasonably be described as Oriental or African. This Aladdin’s Cave once extended to the antiquarian and secondhand stock which reposed, largely undisturbed, in the basement. (Lesley has a funny story about one woman who was allowed down there to browse and, years later, sent some money saying she was sorry she had taken some books without paying! Regular customers stay loyal to Probsthain’s.)
In the early 2000s, as more translations from Chinese appeared in the UK and my own first translations came out in book form, I began to attend Probsthain’s book launches. These were, and still are, delightful events where the assembled book-lovers often spill out onto the pavement for lack of space inside. One memorable evening, Patricia Laurence was there to launch her book Lily’s Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes, about contacts between the Bloomsbury group of writers and artists, and contemporary Chinese intellectuals. Virginia Woolf and Arthur Waley might actually have been customers, since they had lived and worked just around the corner, so this was an appropriate venue. Then I organized a launch there myself. The book was Cao Jinqing’s China Along the Yellow River, a sociology book with the immediacy and humanity of a modern-day William Cobbett’s Rural Rides. I was proud of it, I wanted to launch it into the world, but academic publishers don’t do launches. Well, that’s the joy of Probsthain’s: if you know what you want and it seems like a good idea, you get a warm welcome there. The bookshop was crowded; I read an excerpt in which Professor Cao described being mugged by a couple of urchins at a railway station and letting them off, on condition they agreed to be interviewed for his research; we couldn’t get the prof over from Shanghai in person, but we sent him the pictures.
The bookshop’s rotating display of contemporary African and Oriental art also deserves a mention. The choice is fairly eclectic but my personal favorites are the prints of peasant paintings of Huxian (Huhsien), one of the nicer things to emerge from the Cultural Revolution. On a recent trip to Xi’an I managed to meet Michael’s friend, the old man who taught the peasants their painting skills, and buy a stack of his prints for the shop.
Most recently, Tim and Chris turned the basement into a café, called Tea & Tattle. This is worth a visit for the eye-catching Chinese wallpaper alone, as well as the decent food and hot drinks served from painted porcelain cups and plates. There’s also free wifi and it makes a brilliant meeting place when friends visit London. I believe future plans included extending the café and its activities, so watch this spot. Or just go there, and enjoy.
Published Jan 8, 2014 Copyright 2014 Nicky Harman