This brilliant short novel is a transporting read. Based on a true story, we see young Parisian Edmond Charlot open his tiny dream bookshop and publishing house Les Vraies Richesses in Algiers in 1936, and take it through the Second World War and beyond. A Bookshop in Algiers opens by inviting the reader on a walk down a North African street: “Keep going down, away from the cafés and the bistros, the clothing stores, the produce markets, quick, keep going, don’t stop, turn left, smile at the old florist, lean for a few moments against a hundred-year-old palm tree, ignore the policeman who will tell you it’s prohibited, run after a goldfinch along with some kids, and come out onto Place Emir-Abdelkader”. I felt like I was there.
In the present day, a young man called Ryad is sent by the ageing bookshop’s new owner (a developer) to strip it out and throw the books away. Abdallah, the old man who ran the shop for years, stands on the other side of the road and watches. There’s some neighbourhood solidarity: the local shop workers tell Ryad that there’s a city-wide paint shortage (there isn’t) in an attempt to hold up his gutting and conversion of the bookshop.
As the story unfolded, I thought about books and censorship, reading and writing, and what bookshops can mean to local communities and beyond.
As friends and allies, including Camus and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, move in and out of the bookshop’s orbit, the business becomes a hub for the Free French. Charlot experiences the consequences and joys of illicit publishing in difficult times, facing down both Vichy and the Nazis. We are given vivid snapshots of life in colonial and post-colonial Algeria, through the life of the shop.
Adimi creates memorable images, founded on fact. One of the relics Ryad throws out is an old desk with a stuck top drawer that has a small slit in it. We find out that this was the desk where writers were encouraged by Charlot to write a page a day for a year, post it through the slot, and not look at their work until the end of the year.
There is courage in this story, love of books and reading, and a sensitive account of difficult history. Excellent.