A ‘caravanserai’ was a roadside inn servicing the busy trade routes of Asia and Middle East.
They offered weary travellers a place to recover from their journey, swap stories and share ideas, supporting the flow of commerce, information, culture and people.
The journey up Brick Lane isn’t quite as strenuous as the likes of Silk Road (though those who have fought the tourists on a sunny Sunday might beg to differ) but there, tucked away towards the top end on Cheshire Street, sits your roadside inn in the form of bookshop, art space and café Caravansérail.
Expats Laura Cleary and Anne Vegnaduzzo opened the French and English bookshop and gallery a little over a month ago with the aim of promoting the literary and art scenes from Paris, London and beyond.
The paint has barely dried on an extensive renovation, but already Caravansérail’s shelves are heaving with French literature in Francais and English, plus a selection of arts books, graphic novels, travel books, and children’s stories.
There’s an exhibition by Parisian illustrator Mathieu Persan on the walls of the reading nook, a selection of beautifully designed cards and stationery by independent French designers, and even a small plate of madeleines next to the coffee machine.
Laura, a diplomat fresh from a stint as the economic attache at the French embassy in Beirut, was keen to switch gears and realise her childhood dream of opening a bookshop, and enlisted the help of her cousin Anne who had a background in the arts.
Almost a year after arriving in London, the pair still hasn’t found a site, but a chance wander around this particularly trendy pocket of the East End presented a perfect opportunity.
“There is a French bookshop in South Kensington, but nothing really serving French speakers, or just people who are interested in French literature in the North and East,” Laura says.
“We saw Brick Lane Bookshop and Libreria doing so well in this area; it shows that if you do things right you can thrive.”
We are talking, of course, about the death knell that, if you believe the cynics, has been sounding over the independent bookshop for about the last 20 years. For her part, Laura says it’s all a load of – what’s French for ‘crap’?
“Of course, in London, bookshops have suffered because of the rents and business rates far more so than in Paris, but I think we’re seeing a revival, a reinvention,” she says.
“You have to be more than a bookshop; like any retail outlet you have to create a community around it, make people come for the experience – you can’t just sell books.”
Cue Caravansérail’s programme of art exhibitions, live music performances, book launches, comedy, and poetry from artists on both sides of the Channel.
The customer base so far has been varied; French natives looking for their favourite authors in hard copy and locals who learned French and are looking for a book worth conjugating verbs for.
Caravansérail has also seen its fair share non-French speakers looking to broaden their horizons in the French literary world, an aim Laura says a bricks-and-mortar bookshop is tailor made to address.
“You can’t discover online, on sites like Amazon,” she says. “You can buy what you know you want, or what you think you want, but you can’t discover something new like you can in a bookshop.”