1 March, 2010Issue 11.4InterviewsPhoto Essays

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The Albion Beatnik Bookstore

A Collaborative Work

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Albion Beatnik

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This past week, members of the Oxonian Review editorial staff visited the Albion Beatnik Bookstore on Walton Street. We had a chance to chat with Albion’s owner, Dennis Harrison, and to take some photos of his elegant, whimsical shop. Albion opened in 2008 and features, in Dennis’s words, “interesting fiction of the 20th century, with an emphasis on alternative culture and the beatnik life—travel, poetry, popular music, and jazz.”

Indeed, Albion boasts world-class collections of both “Beat” literature and jazz-related writing, and hits most other 20th-century avant-garde and counter-cultural high points along the way. With its extensive offering of modern British, American, and European poetry and fiction and its well selected (and cheap!) secondhand section, Albion represents a bold and refreshing gesture of indie vitality in a city whose independent book and music store scene has barely a pulse.

Dennis spoke with us for about 45 minutes, while we all sipped coffee and listened to Miles Davis. The wood-floors, book-lined shelves, and jazzy atmosphere made Albion a lovely place to spend an afternoon. The following is a brief excerpt from our conversation:

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OR: How did you choose the name Albion Beatnik?

DH: Albion is an old word for England, and beatnik is an American slang word introduced by Jack Kerouac in the late 1940s (he claimed from the word “beatific”). I just liked it, really. Though, “beatnik” on the sign outside probably looks worse to a passersby than “jazz” would!

OR: It looks like you order a lot of your books from American publishers. I noticed, for instance, that you carry the American editions of Kurt Vonnegut…

DH: I try more and more to order books from the US because they’re so much nicer, and different. The Vonneguts, for instance, have such wonderful covers, and I don’t understand why a book shouldn’t be pleasant to look at as well as to read. And quite often they’re on acid-free paper, so they’re going to last longer.

OR: Do you see the bookshop as providing a cultural service to Oxford?

DH: Well, that’s what I’d like to do. But as I’ve said, this shop is also self-indulgent. It’s not about me being a magnanimous and tremendously good fellow; it’s about doing more than just having a bookshop. That’s why I enjoy being a bookseller in my other shop [Wendover Bookshop], where I put on jazz concerts in the shop and in the local church. People love it, and that’s great, you know. It’s better than watching TV.

OR: You opened Albion in Christmas 2008. How long have you had your other bookshop?

DH: About 21 years.

OR: And how would you categorize Albion?

DH: Well, I’m not going to say it’s a niche bookshop, but it’s not a general bookshop either. You wouldn’t come in here and buy a gardening book. I don’t sell children’s books. Albion focuses primarily on interesting fiction of the 20th century, with an emphasis on alternative culture and the beatnik life—travel, poetry, popular music, and jazz.

OR: So you aren’t just trying to sell the latest bestsellers. I see, for instance, that there’s a stack of House of Leaves and Infinite Jest on the shelf right there…

DH: Yeah, because they’re more interesting. I mean, I’m not sure I’d personally want to read House of Leaves, but!

(Laughter.)

OR: And finally, one last question: do you have a favourite author?

DH: Joseph Conrad.

OR: Thank you.

Stephen Ross is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. Stephen is the editor in chief at the Oxonian Review.

Sarah Leyla Puello is reading for a DPhil in Modern Languages at Wolfson College, Oxford. Sarah is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.

Akshat Rathi is reading for an MSc in Organic Chemistry at Exeter College, Oxford. Akshat is the assistant editor at the Oxonian Review.


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