By Honor Bulmer, BA Study of Religions
It is the people that make SOAS the unique place it is. People we might interact with daily without really knowing their stories. In this issue we talk to Joe Burridge, the manager of SOAS’ very own bookshop.
The onslaught of the online retailer giant has made the local, independent bookshop a thing of the past, or at least a rare commodity. You might think that the library, or – at a stretch – Waterstones on the corner of Gower Street is the closest interaction an average SOAS student comes to “real” copies of the books onthe diverse range of subjects they study. But you’d be wrong, as Joe Burridge, the longstanding manager of the SOAS bookshop, tells me. I am standing in the small gap between the till and the stacks of books waiting to be shelved and thinking how this little corner of the Brunei Gallery must have transformed from the rather under-stocked gift shop it was once intended as.
The space has been used “for years” Joe tells me, as an offshoot branch of Arthur Probsthain: the 111 year old ‘Oriental and African bookseller’ on Great Russell Street. These tightly-packed shelves – holding over 3,000 volumes – are certainly bigger than they look and are frequented by a steady stream of students, academics and visitors alike. As if on cue, a lady who I presume belongs to the latter category interrupts our conversation to ask about a handbook on Arabic music. Joe’s swift and confident reply to her at once betrays a keen knowledge about the books he sells, making it hard to believe that there was once a time when he “had never even heard of Rumi” when a student asked for his poetry at the shop. He’s not embarrassed by his early lack of knowledge in these specialised, often esoteric topics (understandable given the fact he holds an English Literature degree) however, but humble about what he has built up through the casual, everyday exchanges with customers in the 13 years since he first wandered into SOAS looking, originally, for a job in the library: “the sorts of things people study at SOAS are interesting…it’s been quite an education, just sitting here and watching.” But as we talk, it becomes to clear to me that Joe does far more than that: importing books from Japan and Korea specifically for courses here, alongside balancing a busy home life with a family of five children, sounds like no easy task.
The work is worthwhile, however, for furnishing the shelves with unique gems such ‘The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox’ or the unusually titled but ever-
popular ‘Bungo Manual’ for students of classical Japanese, ensure the bookshop’s survival in a market now driven predominantly by online sales. The woman leaves and I am almost disappointed that she’s not one of the writers who have penned something on these very shelves. The bookseller tells me in a hushed, half-irritated, half-pleased aside that the SOAS bookshop often gets regulars of the academic kind, who, probably because their books are sold nowhere else, are not afraid to reveal their identity! I then ask naively “what’s the most popular book?” expecting to hear the title of an Arabic or Chinese textbook. Whilst Joe explains that these are popular, when he holds up a copy of ‘Orientialism’ – the “perennial bestseller” – in reply, I want to kick myself – of course it would be! He goes on to tell me about the time he attended a lecture at SOAS by Edward Said himself – “it was like Elvis Presley had turned up…people were crawling in through the windows”. The lack of security and tickets at the event hint, perhaps, at a more open, relaxed kind of place that only someone like Joe – both intricately involved in,yet somehow removed from SOAS – might recall.