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The Hellenic Bookservice in London, UK August 4, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life.

Bibliophiles in search of books on ancient and modern Greece will find a collection unsurpassed anywhere in the world at The Hellenic Bookservice in London. Featuring more than 16,000 titles on Greek and Latin subjects, the store serves a distinctive niche market and has been doing so for thirty-nine years.

If your interests in Greek literature include Aristophanes, Cavafy, Kazantzakis, or Xenophon, chances are you can find the book you are seeking at the Bookservice. If you are a Latinist and are searching for Cicero, Horace, Ovid, or Virgil, you will find what you need at the Bookservice. The titles are on three floors and a warehouse is in the basement. The eight employees are knowledgeable, accommodating, and multi-lingual.

Greek book shops in Athens such as Elefthourakis carry volumes on Greek literature, history, and poetry in the English language, but The Hellenic Bookservice has a unique collection of rare and out of print books in Greek as well as in English. Subjects include Ancient History and Art, Byzantium, Mythology, Ancient Religion, Cyprus, Crete, Greek Travel, Modern Greece, Ancient Greece, Modern History, Theology, and Language (Latin, Modern Greek, and Ancient Greek).

The Bookservice has more than 1,000 Greek novels and hundreds of poetry books. In addition, its collection of Latin Literature and Poetry is extensive and includes complete sets of The Loeb Classical Library, along with hard to find sets of writings by Virgil and Horace by scholars such as T.E Page, L.P. Wilkinson, and E.C. Wickham.

There are books for children on every Greek subject, including mythology, and also Latin versions of classics such as Winnie Ille Pu. Numerous books on Greek cooking are in one section and the store stocks a variety of books and videos on various methods of learning Latin, Ancient Greek, and Modern Greek, plus videos on films with Greek or Roman themes, such as The Stratford Shakespeare Theatre’s production of The Odyssey and movie versions of movies such as Spartacus, Ben Hur, Oedipus Rex, and Medea.

Unlike behemoth bookstores such as Waterstones and Dillons in the U.K. and Barnes and Noble and Borders in the United States, The Hellenic Bookservice is a warm and inviting place run by three generations of one family. It is managed by Michael Moloney and Marsha Fleming handles accounts and is a special assistant.

Mrs. Photini Constantinou is the visionary who founded the store. An avid reader who loves Greek poetry, literature, and history, she saw a need for a specialty shop featuring books on classical subjects. Still an active partner, she can be seen browsing about from time to time examining the stock. Other partners are her daughter, Monica Williams, and her grandson, Andrew Stoddart.

Between 1944 and 1964 Mrs. Constantinou ran another Greek bookshop called Zeno on Denmark Street. After the original owner sold Zeno, she founded The Hellenic Bookservice in 1966, first located on Charring Cross Road. In 1990 it moved to a corner building at 91 Fortress Road in the Tufnell Park area of North London, less than a fifteen minute ride by underground from central London. Zeno closed in July of 2004 and The Hellenic Bookservice is now the only specialty bookstore on Latin and Greek subjects in the U.K.

Her grandson, Andrew, was just six when the family first took him to Athens and he quickly developed a love for Greece and then for Cyprus, where his maternal grandparents were born. As he matured, he read extensively about Crete and has a passion for The Great Island that is infectious. The store’s webmaster, Stelios Jackson, is also enamored of Crete, and in 2003 he walked the island coast to coast, east to west, and is writing a diary of his odyssey that appears on the Interkriti website. Visit http://www.sjwalks.interkriti.org/ Mr. Jackson has also been published in the prestigious Anglo-Hellenic Review.

More than 600 schools in the U.K. order class books from The Hellenic Bookservice, an arrangement that happened almost by accident. In 1991, a professor in classical studies had been invited to make a presentation at a conference on “Reform in Teaching Latin” at one of the colleges in London. But when his train was delayed in Newcastle, the conference organizers contacted Mrs. Williams and asked her if she could fill in as a speaker.

This was the beginning of hundreds of presentations Mrs. Williams has made at conferences on the Classics sponsored by organizations such as OCR and AQA, official Examination Boards for teachers in schools throughout the U.K. The conferences provide guidelines for educators and give instruction on evaluating and guiding students in their courses on the classics. During these conferences Mrs. Williams exhibits and displays a vast array of books that will enhance the schools’ curriculums on Latin, Ancient Greek, and Classical Civilization. The exhibits provide a valuable service and an excellent resource for educators as they would otherwise not know about the extensive collection of books available in their subjects.

Mrs. Williams believes she has been in almost every school in London. The schools range from the City of London School for Girls in the Barbicon, to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. With a keen business sense, she astutely built this side of the Bookservice’s functions slowly, but steadily. She takes a large variety of books with her for review by the teachers and soon after her presentations the orders start to come in from all over the country. During these periods the atmosphere at the store is not always tranquil, as staff members rush to fulfill the orders.

The store functions, also, as a major resource for films and documentaries that have a Greek or classical theme. Producers come to research and read appropriate background information and to seek advice. A production assistant from the BBC interviewed Mr. Stoddart last summer for a major documentary on Greece that was shown a few months later and Mr. Moloney, the store’s manager, has translated Greek dialogue into English subtitles for a number of documentaries. Mr. Moloney also helps authors who need Greek texts translated into English.

About twenty per cent of the titles can be purchased on line by visiting www.hellenicbookservice.com . But nothing can match the experience of browsing through the store. It is a distinctive meeting place that attracts kindred spirits. It is a place where scholars, students, laymen, authors, actors, lovers of the classics, and an assortment of vagabonds (who always browse, but seldom buy) come to meet and blend together in a warm and welcoming space that is uniquely for their interests. Often while browsing, one will be drawn into a stimulating conversation with a stranger, who, like you, is perhaps half way up a ladder seeking a title on an upper shelf, or is stretched on the floor trying to read all the titles on the lowest shelf.

The famous and almost famous have passed through the narrow portal at 91 Fortress Road, a short walk from the Tufnell Park tube station. And those who came years ago as students now visit as authors. The most famous actor who ever visited was Sir Lawrence Olivier, who purchased books for his personal library. Almost everyone who has written a book on the classics in modern times has been in the shop at one time or another. American authors and scholars such as Margaret Williamson and Mary Lefkowitz stopped in for a browse, as did John Taylor, Peter Jones, Ashley Carter and James Morewood, well-known British authors.

The Bookservice does not have an area set aside for tea and coffee (at this time), but if you are in the store for a long period and are engaged in conversation with the staff, you will be offered a cup. Some patrons have been known to join the staff in a nearby pub for lunch or a pint or two after the close of business.

To spend time in The Hellenic Bookservice is to be part of a unique and distinctive environment where treasure troves of knowledge are at your fingertips. If a bookstore can have a “Spirit of Place”, The Hellenic Bookservice can lay claim to this distinction. Author Lawrence Durrell of The Alexandrian Quartette fame, coined the phrase “spirit of place” in his travel writings about Greece. He explained it means a particular place or land has a “pervasive atmosphere”, evoking distinctive emotions in us and connecting us as human beings. He added in certain places one “feels a bounding with ideas”.

The Hellenic Bookservice connects bibliophiles to the legacy of Greece and the hundreds of authors whose books line its shelves. It has a unique and rarified atmosphere where one can almost sense the ghosts of Homer, Sappho, Virgil and Horace, the great writers and poets of classical times.

This rather small bookstore, tucked away in a corner building, is opposite in purpose and in spirit from the large, cold and impersonal book chains. It has a distinctive essence created by three generations of close-knit family members who have an enduring love of Greece, of Hellenism, and of reading. And it is this trio of special people, a grandmother, a mother, and a son, who have enabled pilgrims making journeys from near and afar to visit their bookstore and be in touch with the ethos of what is surely a precious “spirit of place”.

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