Slightly Foxed Books, 123 Gloucester Road, London, SW7 4TE
Slightly Foxed, a charming and quirky name for a charming and quirky shop, is on the site of what used to be the Gloucester Road Bookshop, but was bought out by Slightly Foxed, the equally charming and quirky literary quarterly, several years ago. Check them out, they’re lovely: http://foxedquarterly.com/
The shop is on one of those quintessential Kensington streets, lined with cafes and restaurants and little boutiques and, like most other things in Kensington, it’s elegant and self-assured and unimposing. Think of it as the complete antithesis to the giant Waterstone’s at Piccadilly Circus.
The front room of the shop is airy and bright and, in the midst of an inexplicable sunny spell yesterday afternoon, full of light. When I walked in, the bookseller was sitting quietly behind his desk sorting through stacks that were collecting around him. He gave me a polite nod and let me get on with my business. He was one of those booksellers who seems just a little bit protective of his books – he let me meander freely through the shop and didn’t even look at me sideways as I made what was probably my fourth loop around the room, but I felt like he was very much aware of everything that was going on. That being said, I was a bit afraid to whip out my camera and take a picture of the room, since it seemed to be so peaceful and natural. So, I’ve had to steal one from http://www.thebookseller.com and hope you’ll forgive me. It’s probably going to be a refreshingly professional-looking picture, actually. If you’re interested, The Bookseller has a great article about Slightly Foxed that shouldn’t be too tricky to find.
With the bookseller’s watchful eye on the back of my head, I ran my fingers along the spines of the stunning collection of secondhand books on offer. The shop sells a combination of old and new books, so browsing in there is really quite a varied experience.
Among the new books, the highlights were a signed (signed!) copy of Salman Rushdie’s new autobiography Joseph Anton: A Memoir which I’m dying to buy but it’s hardcover and expensive, and a very interesting new publication of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, which featured Ethan Frome comic strips on the inside flaps and which I’ve been unable to locate anywhere on the internet. Touché, Mr. Fox.
The older books, though, were the real treasures. I’ve heard a rumor that this bookshop sells books that range between £1 and £15,000. I didn’t spot any that were on the higher end of the scale, but I can certainly imagine some secret masterpiece hiding in plain view somewhere on these perfectly organised walls. Fortunately, most of the books are closer to the £1 end of the scale. I took home two new treasures.
The first was a hardcover copy of Dylan Thomas: The Collected Poems, 1934 – 1952, published in 1959 by J.M. Dent & Sons. On the leaf opposite the cover page is a painting of Dylan Thomas by Augustus John, in which he has a serious expression, a curly head of hair and very fashionable scarf. He reminds me of my brother Harry. The real reason I bought the book is because of the inscription on the inside front cover which is written in beautiful handwriting, “To Ben, with love for Christmas – from Sheryl, 1959”. Anyone have any thoughts on the story there? What is so brilliant about inscriptions in books is that I can imagine it. Maybe they were friends who loved to talk about books. Or co-workers in a mundane job who resorted to talking about poetry to make the hours pass. Maybe Sheryl’s lifelong mission was to get her little brother Ben to stop thinking about the stock market and read some poetry! Maybe they are a couple about to divorce spending their last Christmas together and Sheryl wants Ben to read Thomas’ poem “On A Wedding Anniversary”, on p. 124 of this edition, because it sums up the way she feels better than she can.
Sorry, I spun off there for a moment. I bought the Dylan Thomas book for £8.50. However, take note that if you want to pay by card at Slightly Foxed you have to spend over £10. The bookseller quickly told me that there’s a cashpoint just down the road, but I jumped at the excuse to buy another book.
The second book I bought was a 1976 Andre Deutsch edition of Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark. I was drawn to it because the dust jacket has a beautiful, colourful painting designed by someone called Barbara Brown of a lonely woman standing in a 20s style bar in London or Paris, surrounded by beautiful people and gold trim on majestic arches and potted plants everywhere. There were actually also copies of Good Morning, Midnight and one other Rhys novel, it may have been Wide Sargasso Sea, but I can’t quite remember, with similar illustrations by Brown. I can’t tell you how much I wanted all three, but they were £10 each so I went for Voyage in the Dark. It’s gorgeous, but it doesn’t quite seem right without the others.
There is also a basement, filled with more secondhand books on subjects like History, Philosophy and Biography. When I headed down to see the rest of the books, I noticed a sign above the door that said bags were not allowed downstairs and were to be left at the desk. This is a strange peculiarity of London bookshops and I’m not sure what to make of it. Most bookshops with multiple floors have a similar sign but it seems that only tourists obey them. I’ve often blatantly ignored the signs and gone down with my bags and surprisingly, no pack of rabid dogs has attacked me and I haven’t had a single harsh word from a bookseller yet. And whenever I ask if I need to leave my bag, they usually tell me not to worry about it. I can’t figure this little oddity out. Maybe it’s more a way of warning people not to steal books than an actual rule, but I like to think that it’s some kind of social experiment the booksellers do to pass the time; what kind of person will leave their bag; what kind of person won’t? Enough about that.
Some of the favourites among the books that I found downstairs were a used book about the original St. Paul’s Cathedral that stood at the top of Ludgate Circus before it was burnt down and rebuilt by Christopher Wren as the landmark we know today. There was another book about Jack the Ripper and the East London of his day, which I found particularly appealing since I used to live around the corner from where he killed one of his victims. That’s not something the estate agents tell you. I also saw a book from 1928 by George Bernard Shaw called The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, which apparently was born out of a conversation Shaw had with his sister-in-law who wondered why women weren’t being included in the political discourse of the time and wanted to know more! He had a very funny phrase in his introduction which was something along the lines of “this book is an inadequate answer to my sister-in-law’s perfectly adequate question”, but his version was better than that. I particularly liked the wide selection of literary biographies, covering people like Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley, Wordsworth and Samuel Johnson.
I’ve rambled about this bookshop for quite some time now, so I’ll conclude. I love this bookshop. I love the location, the physical space and the quirky characters in it. But what I love most about it is that unlike the bigger chain bookshops you see most often today (I’ll recall that comparison to the Piccadilly Waterstone’s), there are no extra gimmicks, no flashy displays, no attempts to make everything better or newer or faster or bigger. Slightly Foxed, like any good bookshop, is nothing more than a nice space where you can think about books.
Not what they can do for you, not how fast you can get them, not how many you can have at once and not what cross-promotional products you “need” to buy to enhance your experience of them.
Just books. Just the fact that they’re still there, they’re still carrying our stories.