Daunt Books tote bag, Marylebone, London

This is the bag slung over my shoulder in Italy that has now been immortalized on Google Street View.  It is from the lovely Edwardian bookstore Daunt on Marylebone High Street in London, which organizes its shelves by place rather than genre so that Naguib Mahfouz novels will sit next to Fodor’s Egypt guides and coffee table books about the temples of Luxor — for the prospective traveler, this is an eminently sensible organizing principle that is too rarely employed at other bookstores.  The bag comes free with purchases over a certain amount and as my friend Mesh Chhibber buys books there in abundance it leaves me a steady supply of totes to steal from him, or be given when he tires of my thieving ways.

Before Google Street View, this tote had already sparked an immortal moment in my life.  I was at the restaurant on the top floor of the Albergo Hotel in Beirut waiting with two others for the tiny, rickety French-style elevator.  When it arrived I stepped aside to let an older European man and younger Lebanese man enter before me.  There followed an awkward moment when it seemed to me that they were attempting to close the manual doors before I’d gotten on, but the effort was abandoned and I squeezed in.  As the Lebanese man maneuvered around me to press the button for the ground floor I saw that he had an earpiece.  Now I understood: he was a bodyguard and my joining them in the close quarters of the elevator posed a significant security risk to the other man behind me.

I stared ahead as the elevator made its slow progress, trying not to make any sudden movements.  In the silence I heard an English-accented voice say, “That is the finest bookshop in London.”  I turned now — it seemed impolite and possibly suspicious not to — and saw the man’s face for the first time.  It was Robert Fisk: Middle East correspondent for the Independent, noted political contrarian, and the man the New York Times described as probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain.  He had also been for several decades the most prominent foreign resident of Beirut and someone who, no doubt, had made enemies across the political spectrum in a city given to sporadic bouts of spectacular political violence.  The bodyguard was eyeing me carefully so I could come up with nothing more original than to say “Yes, there are too few like them,” though I wouldn’t know London well enough to defend this claim.  Perhaps because of my accent, Fisk said, “Still, better than New York.”  Thinking of all the wonderful independent bookstores I’d seen close in my life in New York, I agreed with this and only when the elevator doors had opened and Fisk and his bodyguard had gone did I remember that Three Lives bookstore in Greenwich Village is, really, the Daunt of New York.

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