It was advertised through Twitter as a book launch cum Charles Dickens’ birthday party, two years ago. I decided it was the only way to spend a snowy February evening. Trying to keep my balance on the icy Chelsea street, I reached the corner bookshop. bookHaus, with a prominent red ‘H’ sign. The windows were all steamed up. I opened the door and a wave of body warmth, wine and conversation poured out. The tiny bookshop was bursting at the seams with an eclectic crowd of people trying to balance their glasses and not spill wine on their neighbours’ coats. The good humour was palpable. That was the first of many bookHaus parties for me
I am not really a party person. I am shy and find small talk exhausting. The thing is, it’s never small talk at bookHaus. History, geography, philosophy, literature and films are discussed in assorted languages by individuals from different countries and backgrounds, while the wine flows and exquisite nibbles are passed around. Making conversation is never difficult at a bookHaus book launch party, where those present seem fascinated by what you have to say.
Barbara Schwepcke – the owner of Haus Publishing – towers over the guests, hugging and smiling, dimples in her cheeks, genuinely excited to see so many people. Her voice is deep, with a trace of German. There’s no mistaking it: Barbara is passionate about books, languages, words and ideas, and positively glows when surrounded by them.
Her mother, whom I always address as Frau Schwepcke, floats among the guests, making sure glasses are kept filled and everyone is content. A tall, distinguished lady with a self-possessed, quiet manner and blue eyes that see through you. You can easily imagine her, a few decades ago, giving the other undergraduates at Heidelberg an intellectual run for their money.
Harry, Barbara’s associate publisher, stands in a corner, peering through his glasses, holding his wine with both hands. As I walk up to say hello, his courteous expression is a blend of “lovely to see you” and “oh, no, what is she going to spring on me now?”
Ellie, the editor, edges her way through the crowd, carrying a tray of canapés, describing the composition of every morsel. Her eye is keen, her speech precise and her words accurate.
By the window, Edoardo, the sales executive, holds court. His tone is earnest. His face reminds you of the Florentine paintings of the 1500s and when he speaks his native Italian, he turns his ‘c’s into ‘h’s, in authentic Tuscan fashion.
When Dr Barbara Schwepcke acquired this Belgravia corner building for the offices of Haus Publishing, she had not thought of opening a bookshop. However, the leasehold stipulated that the ground floor should contain premises open to the public. And so, in 2008, bookHaus was born. At first, it was an outlet for books published by Haus but, in time, volumes by other publishing houses found their way onto the shelves that line the walls. Many are translations from other languages. Although the range of Haus-published works remains as varied as ever, bookHaus has recently become a travel bookshop.
Eighteen months ago, Barbara gave me my first “proper” break as a literary translator. Over an espresso from the stylish coffee machine in the corner, by the large, soft armchair, she provided advice, e-mail addresses and encouragement. Then she took a punt on me, and gave me a book to translate. Le balene lo sanno, by Italian writer Pino Cacucci. A jewel of a book by a man who truly sees and lives the lands he visits. A travel log about Baja California, where the author travelled in the footsteps of John Steinbeck. My first real translation, published by a real publisher, as a real book. Eighteen months on, under the title The Whales Know, it’s a real, cherry-red, cloth-bound book, with my name printed beneath that of the author. “Translated by Katherine Gregor”.
I still can’t quite believe it.