Grand old dame of Russell Street

Updated: 2011-10-19 07:53

By Liu Wei (China Daily)

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 Grand old dame of Russell Street

Michael Sheringham at his family's Arthur Probsthain bookstore. [Photos by Liu Wei / China Daily]

A London bookshop that has been standing for 108 years remains the city's leading store for books on China. Liu Wei reports from London.

A 10-minute away from The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, is a bookstore that has been standing here for 108 years and remains the city's leading store for books on Asia and Africa.

Feeling more like a cozy study than a store, it is run by Michael Sheringham, 65, his sister Lesley, 63, and their 90-year-old mother, Eve.

Arthur Probsthain, on Great Russell Street, is a magnet for both students and teachers in the neighborhood.

English books about China have been a highlight ever since the store was founded in 1903 by Arthur Probsthain. He was an enthusiast of oriental culture and languages, and uncle of Michael Sheringham's father.

Readers can find not only classic Chinese novels such as The Story of the Stone and Romance of Three Kingdoms, but also the works of contemporary writers such as Wang Anyi and Han Dong.

There are also various textbooks on Chinese language, and a rich collection of illustrated books on Chinese arts and culture.

 Grand old dame of Russell Street

A corner of Arthur Probsthain on Great Russell Street in London.

For generations, Sheringham tells China Daily in a mix of English and Chinese, the classics have been a favorite of customers browsing books about China, while works by modern and contemporary Chinese writers are less popular.

Picking up a copy Wang's The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, which won the Mao Dun Literature Prize, China's top literary honor, he says: "When I read about this book I thought I must have it in my shop.

"But most customers don't know about these Chinese writers, so I will recommend it to those who show interest in Chinese literature."

He attributes the limited awareness of Chinese literature to lack of publicity about modern and contemporary Chinese writers on the global scene.

"Compared to many Japanese writers, such as Kawabata Yasunari who won the Nobel Prize as early as 1968, contemporary Chinese writers have a relatively low profile in the West," he says.

Writers must seek out big publishers in the West to raise their profile, he adds.

On his shelves are two different editions of short stories by Lu Xun, the early 20th century Chinese writer known for his sharp political essays and pioneering short stories. One is published by Penguin and the other, by a Chinese press. They sell differently.

"Everybody knows Penguin here, but not many (know) the other one, although the translations are both good."

His mother, Eve Sheringham, buried in a mound of cards - she has been hand-writing monthly catalogues of forthcoming titles since she was involved in the shop 68 years ago - raises her head to add:

"For many readers of Chinese literature, the classic novels are what they begin with, because that's what they know best.

"They just need some time to catch up with contemporary literature."

Sheringham, ever keen to explore his readers' interest in modern and contemporary Chinese literature, has invited writers such Han Dong for book launches in his shop, and introduced them to his guests, mostly scholars, students and critics.

"Sometimes the writers find me and sometimes I contact them," he says, and opens a notebook, to show a bookmark for Zhu Wen, Oct 20.

"I heard the writer will be in town. I would like to invite him for a book launch in my shop."

The family often organizes regular meetings at home, to read and discuss Chinese literature. Sheringham also invites writers of books about China to give talks to "promote knowledge and appreciation of the best of Chinese culture, art, philosophy and history".

The shop hosts art exhibitions such as those of peasant paintings from Huxian county in Shaanxi province, and the works of the woodblock print artist Ding Jitang from the same area.

Sheringham's passion for Chinese culture was fostered in a childhood spent in the shop, which his father inherited from his uncle, along with his ardor for oriental culture.

He graduated in Chinese studies from Durham University and left for Beijing in 1972, where he taught English in Peking University, while also honing his Chinese skills.

Although the East Asian Studies department of Durham was closed years ago, Sheringham finds many have followed in his footsteps.

"Textbooks on the Chinese language are a big favorite in the shop," he says. "Many universities provide Chinese language as a subsidiary course. Teachers send their students here, and some just learn it out of personal interest. Everyone knows China is opening up, and about its rise as a big economy."

He has even opened a branch at The School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London, which gets very busy when a new term begins.

Terence Tse, one of its customers, is a freshman at the Imperial College and born to a Chinese mother and Singaporean father. Although he went against his parents' wishes to send him to a Chinese school when he was very young, he chose to study Chinese in his first year in college.

"I feel like I want to know more about my background," he says.

Besides the language textbooks, he also likes to pick up books on China's economy, and science and technology.

Like many traditional bookstore owners around the world, the Sheringhams too have to contend with the challenge posed by online stores.

"In the past there were customers who really collected books to build their own libraries, but now (these are) less," he says. "Older people browse and rarely buy, while young customers go straight to the textbooks, not literature."

The shop uses online booksellers such as Amazon and Abebooks to sell their stock. Today, online orders account for a considerable part of its revenue.

The basement, which used to be a book stock room, is now a cafe run by Sheringham's two nephews. Two floors of the house, owned by the family, are now being rented out.

The store's displays include a collection of music, greeting cards, bookmarks and calendars.

"Business is more difficult than in the past," Sheringham says. "But we are slowly changing to tackle the challenges in a new era."