Book Mongers, 439 Coldharbour Lane, London, SW9 8LN
This bookshop in the heart of Brixton, I’m delighted to report, is completely mad. Of course, Brixton itself is delightfully mad too, full of strange people and wonderful people and really random and bizarre sights. So in a way, this eccentric little shop fits in perfectly.
Frankly, I’m a bit stumped as to how to begin describing the beautiful, beautiful chaos that surrounds you the second you walk in the door of Book Mongers. I think it’s because it’s not like any other bookshop I’ve ever been in and believe me, I’ve been in a lot.
Book Mongers is absolutely packed full with books. In the midst of this impressive scale, I needed to come up with a strategy.
I think it’s accurate to say that when I enter a bookshop, the first place I go, in order to orientate myself and establish what kind of shop I’m dealing with, is the Fiction section. I quickly realised this bookshop resists those kinds of easy generalisations and assumptions, because instead of one coherent and complete Fiction section, there were various shelves labelled the curiousest way I’ve ever seen. The books were organised into amusing, but somewhat confusing, categories like “European Short Stories”, “American Fiction – Male Authors” and “Modern Scottish Novels”, in addition to a “Fiction” shelf and a “Literature” one on the other side of the shop. The other impediment to the quick and simple location of a specific book was the fact that on each shelf there were sporadic piles of other books, front covers out to the world, gathering on top of the more obedient books that were waiting, forgotten, in their places on the shelves. In order to find that spine of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, for example, I had to move Into the War by Italo Calvino, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and C.S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress (am I the only one who always forgets he wrote more than just Narnia?) out of the way.
In other words, this shop is an absolute nightmare if you’re looking for something specific.
Fortunately, I almost never am.
I enjoy the madness of Book Mongers, possibly because the layers of books remind me a bit of the many bookshelves for whom I’ve acted as keeper over the years. At one point, in my childhood bedroom, the first of my two bookcases had a couple of shelves where the books were two rows deep. My meticulously organised mother soon objected to this and tried to rearrange the shelf while I was at school. It resulted in one of the biggest fights we’ve ever had.
Despite the disorganisation of the shelves, the layout of the shop is very conducive to browsing. I find I often have the awkward experience in bookshops of having to squat down and tilt my head in a way it shouldn’t be tilted to get a glimpse of the books on the bottom row or two of a shelf. Rather ingeniously, every cranny in this bookshop is equipped with a chair for snooping, resting, reading or eavesdropping purposes. An in those crannies you’ll find books on poetry, biography, gardening, cookery, art, architecture, philosophy, psychology, history (seriously, an impressive history collection!), science, music and all kinds of weird categories of fiction as well as one of the biggest collections of literature in foreign languages I’ve seen in any London bookshop, except maybe Skoob. And they’re all dead cheap, by the way.
Which brings me to my favourite part of Book Mongers: the mezzanine. Up a couple of stairs is a little alcove with a couch, a very strange arrangement of some disturbing stuffed animals, a bicycle and a desk covered in a books, old magazines and a random statue of a lobster.
The best part of this bit of the shop is that all the books on the walls cost only 50p. When I see something like that, I sceptically assume (maybe not sceptically; it’s based on lots of experience) that these are the weird, random, kind-of-cool-but-not-enough-to-actually-buy-it kind of books.
But wait! On these shelves were some actually really good books! Lots of them were silly beach reads, but there were some old Wordsworth Classics editions of books by writers like Wilkie Collins (okay, so a Victorian beach read, but still), Dickens and Gaskell as well as children’s books like Anne of Avonlea and The Phantom Tollbooth that made me very nostalgic. And all for 50p! I, for one, was just in heaven.
In the end, I submitted to the easy-going, ‘stay a while, don’t worry about it’ feel of the shop and sat on the couch perusing those old favourites about Anne Shirley, her dreaded red hair and her burning desire to change her name to Cordelia. I actually know a little girl lucky enough to be called Cordelia but, inexplicably, she shirks old King Lear and prefers to go by ‘Coco’ instead, which I think is absurd. And there we go, somehow, Anne’s got me a million miles away again.
So in the end I didn’t actually buy anything, though I deliberated for a while over a book about the history, production and appreciation of tea which cost £2.50.
I think the wonderful thing about bookshops like this is that you might not go in looking for anything and sometimes you might even come out empty-handed, but that’s not what matters. After spending a good amount of time admiring lovely old books, discovering new titles, flipping through brittle pages and being surrounded by the gentle smell of paper, you’ve transcended that “must find, must buy” mentality that the world imposes and the internet facilitates. To pop into Book Mongers, or any fine bookshop, is to pop out of that mentality for a moment. To spend a little while sitting down, flipping through an old favourite (or a new one) is a rewarding, refreshing and increasingly unappreciated escape into another world.