Sunday, February 01, 2009

What Maxim Did Next

Maxim Jakubowski awaits the closing of Murder One.

Since the Murder One bookstore in London’s Charing Cross Road was due to close forever on Saturday, I felt I had to make a final trip to buy some books from that almost 21-year-old store, which has so long been a favorite haunt of mine. I also wished to thank owner Maxim Jakubowski and his crack staff for providing me with such excellent reading material over the years, as well as pass on my very best wishes for their future endeavors.

Murder One holds special memories for me. Perhaps most significantly, it was the site in 1999 of the launch of Hannibal, by Thomas Harris. The shop opened at midnight on June 7 of that year, its staffers greeting readers who queued up to buy their first copies of Harris’ latest novel with glasses of Chianti and bowls of fava beans. In line with me that evening was Mark Billingham (In the Dark). I remember vividly the world’s media descending upon Murder One to cover the event, and my own enthusiasm. As I was first in the queue (waiting six hours until the shop reopened), I was interviewed by the press--much to the embarrassment of my family, who saw my face in the newspapers and on television the next morning.

As I made my way through London to Murder One one last time, the weather was typically awful for this time of year, with rain pelting across the Charing Cross Road. So I was particularly grateful to reach the bookstore. The first thing I noticed there was that much of the stock had been marked down for quick sale, and there were many gaps on the shelves. I felt sad to witness this unexpected demise of the British capital’s foremost magnet for crime and thriller fans. Once Jakubowski closed his doors, I knew, the only London bookstore specializing in crime fiction would be Goldsboro Books on Cecil Court.

After grabbing up several books for my own collection, I wandered over to speak with Jakubowski. Despite the deluge of stories written about his shop’s fate, I found him to be in remarkably good form--jolly, in fact. Jakubowski explained that he had been really taken aback, and moved, by the generous comments people from all over the world had made following the announcement of Murder One’s closure. He told me that Orion Publishing, one of the UK’s foremost purveyors of new crime fiction, had couriered over a case of fine champagne. He’d also received letters, cards, e-mail messages, and flowers from customers, editors, publishers, bloggers, literary agents, and writers scattered across the four corners of the globe--and beyond, as Murder One carried a large science-fiction section (as well as a romance fiction department).

Jakubowski spoke with The Times of London in early January, explaining why he’d decided--reluctantly--that the time had come for him to close Murder One:
Mr. Jakubowski, anxious to retire, was negotiating to sell Murder One in September, but Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and the offers dried up. Five months later, he decided to place the store into voluntary liquidation.

“Over the last few years our sales have deteriorated,” Mr. Jakubowski said. “I was planning to retire this year, but this is earlier than expected. I would rather close the shop now and go out voluntarily with my head held high and no debts. Once the Internet came along, it was a slow and consistent decline for us. After the credit crunch I took a decision--one can’t be sentimental about it. It’s just a business.”
The city’s other quality newspapers have covered this store’s shuttering with equal respect and a due somberness of tone. From The Guardian’s Stuart Evers:
Inclusive and without snobbery, Murder One amply demonstrated that the best bookshops are places not just of commerce, but of community; places that make you feel you belong. It’s the kind of store that bibliophiles dream about: well-stocked, well-staffed and shabby enough to lose days browsing within. It’s just unfortunate that such shops don’t have enough paying customers to keep them afloat, or that these customers visit all too infrequently--something of which I’m certainly guilty.

These kinds of shops are facing a long, bloody battle--and one which, without significant reinforcements, they are likely to lose. As we hear of the travesty of another brilliant independent going down, we’ll mourn the loss, wring our hands and damn Amazon and the supermarkets and Waterstone’s. Yet perhaps the most important detail we’ll probably keep under wraps: the last time we actually spent any money there.
And from The Telegraph:
Charing Cross Road is renowned for its specialist and second-hand bookshops. Murder One--which is the only British bookshop where The Firm author John Grisham has carried out a book signing--is the second specialist bookshop to close or announce its closure on the street within a week.

On New Year’s Eve, specialist art bookseller Shipleys shut its doors for the last time.

The spate of closures will put the street’s position as a world-renowned book-buying destination under threat. Charing Cross Road’s status as one of London’s cultural centres has already been dealt a heavy blow by the imminent closure of the London Astoria, the concert theatre.

Mr. Jakubowski said that he was planning to retire at the end of 2009 but that the current economic climate meant that he could no longer run the store.
Maxim Jakubowski spoke with The Bookseller about this closure:
“It’s tough for a specialist bookshop now: you are fighting the Internet and the chains, discounting almost at a loss sometimes. Publishers are not particularly sympathetic at improving their discounts or making authors available. We’ve had loyalty from authors, but it’s been an uphill struggle.”

Jakubowski said that there had been earlier interest in buying the shop but that the credit crunch had made it “the worst possible climate” for a sale.
Being familiar with this store owner’s energy, business connections, publishing assignments, and writing talent, I was reassured that he would not soon be heading off to a retirement home in Brighton. And he explained to me that the legal agreements for a transfer of ownership to the Murder One Web site would be taking place shortly (two of the operation’s senior staffers are taking it over), so at least Murder One will continue in the guise of an Internet bookseller. That made me feel at least a bit better.

I asked Jakubowski what plans he has for the near future. He explained that he intends to take off for the United States as soon as possible, and spend a few weeks there promoting Rome Noir, a collection of crime-fiction yarns that he co-edited with Chiara Stangalino for Akashic Books (and which pairs nicely with Paris Noir, which he edited for Serpent’s Tail two years ago). For readers who haven’t yet acquired a copy of Rome Noir, here’s part of the publisher’s briefing on the book:
Rome Noir looks beyond the tourist facade of Italy’s capital. This is the real city of Fellini, Pasolini, and countless other major artists who devoted their lives to depicting the grandeur and decadence of this ever fascinating metropolis.

Both a modern city suffocated by traffic fumes and cars and a repository of knowledge and Classical monuments, Rome (with its hills and ruins) is a perfect conduit for an excursion into the many facets of modern noir. Here, Rome takes a place of honor amongst Akashic’s growing collection of anthologies devoted to the dark streets of cities. Assembled by award-winning British editor and writer Maxim Jakubowski, who has enjoyed a long relationship with Italy, and Italian conference organizer and filmmaker Chiara Stangalino, Rome Noir collects some of the biggest talents of the Italian crime and literary scene: Carlo Lucarelli, Gianrico Carofiglio, Diego De Silva, Francesca Mazzucato, Antonio Scurati, Tommaso Pincio, Boosta, and many others.

From Stazione Termini, immortalized by Roberto Rossellini’s films, to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s desolate beach of Ostia, and encompassing famous landmarks and streets, this is the sinister side of the Dolce Vita come to life, a stunning gallery of dark characters, grotesques, and lost souls seeking revenge or redemption in the shadow of the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Vatican, Trastevere, the quiet waters of the Tiber, and Piazza Navona. Rome will never be the same.
While on the other side of the Atlantic, Jakubowski intends, too, to promote one of his most interesting books, Confessions of a Romantic Pornographer. (Don’t let that title put you off; I read this novel several years ago and found it quite remarkable. Here’s an extract.) And after he returns home to the UK, he has more fiction to write and work to accomplish as the editor of anthologies. He’s also pretty busy with British publisher Constable and Robinson, working on several projects, and he is organizing this year’s Crimescene Festival in conjunction with the British Film Institute and Turner Classic Movies. Not surprisingly, Jakubowski is looking forward to some free time in between all of these ventures, when he can start to whittle down his looming pile of reviewable books.

After bidding Jakubowski good-bye, I took my weighty armload of books up to the sales counter and surveyed Murder One one final time. I realized that this would be the last occasion on which I’d leave Charing Cross Road with one of the shop’s familiar red, white, and black carrier bags marked with the Murder One logo. It was truly the end of an era for this crime-fiction enthusiast.

It was still raining--surprise, surprise--when I stepped outside again, heading off toward London’s Soho district and my second obligation of that day: lunch with American thriller writer Richard Montanari. I hoped our meeting would help fill some of the emptiness I carried away in my heart from Charing Cross Road.

(The second part of Ali Karims report can be found here.)


Anna said...

It's a real pitty. I remember myself with 15 years escaping from my friends in my first trip to London and heading to Charing Cross. No mobiles at this time, and I lost sense of time, so they had to wait for me three hours at Victoria Station.
I came there with a bag full of books, and since then I went to Murder One each and every time I visited London. Even if it was for a weekend.
It's a sad day, yes. It rains here as well.

Rosemary said...

This is very sad news. My husband and I stumbled across Murder One for the first time in 1997, and made a point of stopping in every time we got to London. It was such a fantastic place to find unusual titles and new authors. Thanks for posting this tribute--and to Mr. Jakubowski, best wishes and a well-deserved break.

Anonymous said...

Sad news indeed, but I'm sure we've not heard the last from Mr Jakubowski, and I look forward to his next project...