The Nostalgia Series, Part I: Bookbinders

I have never been to a truly “authentic” British pub.  As far as I am concerned, this is true by definition: any pub that a twenty-four year old American studying abroad can find, enter, and safely drink a pint in simply can’t be properly English.  Nonetheless, if I were to ever swear allegiance to the Queen, move to Stoke-on-Trent, and find myself a proper pub, I imagine it would be a lot like the Old Bookbinders.

As with all the hot spots in Oxford, I first heard about the Old Bookbinders in my research methods class.  A few students wanted to do a quick ethnography of a genuine public house and, upon asking the only English person in our program, he suggested Bookbinders.  Of course, now that the Americans in Oxford have discovered that Bookbinders is the ultimate “townie” pub, it must not be anymore.

Still, walking into Bookbinders does feel like stepping into another world, inhabited primarily by dock workers from Charles Dickens’ era and extras from the pub scene in the first Lord of the Rings movie.  The atmosphere is difficult to describe, especially in terms that would help explain why I love it so much.  No two pieces of furniture are the same; one could wind up sitting on anything between an overstuffed armchair or a roughly hewn stool.  The walls are covered in thousands of different beer labels and the entire place is cluttered with old books (hence the name).

As a business, the Bookbinders is an utter farce.  The last time I visited, the bar man informed me—unapologetically—that they were completely out of ale, and when I asked for a substitute beverage, he obliged only grudgingly.  The employees evidently do not care enough about making money to actually encourage anyone to buy anything: I’ve stayed in the corner and played board games hours after I had drained my single pint.  In fact, the first time I went to Bookbinders was with the Sachs Scholar from ’97, who as convinced that one of the men sitting at the bar was still there from his last visit, thirteen years prior.

In a sense, Bookbinders is a metaphor for what I love about living abroad.  Poor service and grubby tables are the kind of things that might drive me away in the U.S., but here I can celebrate them as a “cultural experience.”  I would like to think that, in thirteen years, I too could return and find the Bookbinders unaltered, a relic of simpler and slower times.

A few weeks ago, Bookbinders put up a sign announcing that the place was available for rent.  When I went last week, a note on the door said that the pub was closed indefinitely, a casualty of the corporatization of English pubs and the atomization and supermarketization of English drinking.  A perfect metaphor for how, facing up to my last three weeks of Oxford, I am feeling: why does everything have to change?

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