The other day I had to go to Knightsbridge and it was awful. The crowds of tourists milling in and out of Harrod’s, the rows upon rows of astronomically expensive designer shops and the worship of consumerism and materialism for its own sake sicken me. Did you know that Harrod’s has a bookshop? It’s filled with screaming children, smells overwhelmingly of perfume and has Celebrations, the book about nothing by Pippa Middleton, on display. After about five minutes in there, I decided to take the long way home and go via South Kensington for a little bit of sanity.
The streets of South Ken are pristine, elegant and sweet and there are quaint little cobbled roads with small cafes and boutiques and little families who walk all in a line behind mother duck on their way to the Museums. And right outside the tube, in Thurloe Street, is a beautiful little bookshop I can never resist popping into every time I’m in the area. (For the record, on the rare occasion I’m in the area, it’s almost always because I’ve been at the V&A, which you’ll be pleased to know has an absolutely stunning library.)
After the madness I had to walk through to get to it, I don’t think I can put in words how much of a relief it was to come to this quiet little street and a bookshop that has real class. If the future of book-buying is a loud, chaotic, overly-perfumed room sandwiched between the Luxury Gifts section and a toy shop, I want no part in it. Give me South Kensington Books any day. I would gladly forsake the company of the rest of human kind and even pay a bit more to buy my books here, where the money spent is so much less important than the experience of book-hunting.
But this little bookshop warrants so much more than a comparison with Harrod’s, so I’ll stop my griping now and give it the attention it doesn’t demand, but nonetheless deserves.
South Kensington Books blends perfectly into its surroundings; it’s elegant, understated, quiet and absolutely lovely. Its front window display is one of the most inviting I’ve ever seen with big beautiful cookbooks, children’s books, history books, novels, maps and postcards. Above the books you can just about glimpse a preview of what’s inside; dim lights, wooden shelves and rows and rows of new friends to meet. I blame this window for drawing me in one too many times and taking altogether too much money from me over the years.
The first room is full of your usual bookshop fare. On one wall is its very well-stocked fiction section, where you’ll find most of the classics, contemporary fiction, the current bestsellers and all the award-winners. All the books are brand new and ever so slightly cheaper than retail price. For example, the retail price on Within a Budding Grove, which I bought and am now dying to read, was £9.99, but I got it for £7.99. So, no, not a competitor with Amazon on price, I’m afraid, but they certainly undercut Waterstone’s. There’s also a fantastic selection of beautiful art books, which I’m afraid I don’t have the intellect to appreciate nearly as much as they deserve, but still love to admire. The travel book section is wonderful (if a bit Lonely Planet-heavy, but what can you do?) and I nearly bought myself a guide book for my upcoming trip to Copenhagen, but decided I’d rather wander the streets without guidance or expectations this time around. Don’t worry, if there’s a bookshop, I will gladly offer up the Matilda Project’s first Danish entry.
(Look at what’s just happened! Once again, a bookshop in London has had the power to transport me somewhere completely different, putting meddlesome ideas in my head.)
But back to South Kensington.
In the back room is the bookshop’s really amazing selection of history books. This is my new go-to bookshop when looking for presents for my dad. The man is obsessed with history. For Christmas I got him Jerusalem: A Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. It’s probably 700 pages but he was so excited and I know the enormous tomes on display here would make him very happy. British and American history and politics are very well-represented, but the selection is not quite as Western-biased as a lot of bookshops I’ve been in; the rest of the world gets its say too. The back room also has a small selection of children’s books and a wall full of beautiful books of poetry. They had the selected poems of Keats, Byron, Blake and Wordsworth in the lovely hardcover collections with beautiful covers that Faber & Faber released recently, where a contemporary poet selects the poems and writes the introduction. Have you seen them yet? They’re gorgeous. I almost bought Memorial by Alice Oswald, which is a brilliant collection of poems that’s sort of a re-writing of the Iliad. She explains it much more eloquently than that though. I wanted it, but two books in one day seemed a bit decadent.
Oh, and the entire back wall was covered in cookbooks of all shapes and sizes, ranging from your conventional recipe book to a guide to what flavours work well together.
The last time I was in here, they also had a whole shelf of Folio Society editions of some classic and some contemporary novels. If you’re not familiar with them, the Folio Society produce beautiful hardcover copies of books, working on the ethos that ‘Some books are worth treasuring.’ Their books are the kind that you use to build your perfect library, and then pass on to your children. I went in once and saw a really wonderful Folio Society edition of the Complete Works of Arthur Conan Doyle and from then on have been pretty much sold. Another time, I found their copy of Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee which had amazing colour illustrations by Andrew Gibson.
On my most recent visit, though, they were conspicuously missing. I asked the bookseller what had happened to them and he’d told me that since the last time I’d been in there, maybe a month earlier, the majority of them had been sold. This is a good thing, I suppose, since it means the bookshop must be doing all right and that people still care about having books that are more than just a file and still feel the need to treasure them, share them and pass them on. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t miss admiring them though.
A quick note on the Folio Society. They earned my eternal love and devotion the day I first saw this advert on the tube:
‘Rekindle your love of Beautiful Books’ is obviously a not-so-subtle jab at Amazon and their Kindle and I think it’s brilliant. Wake up, humans, your Kindles aren’t special!
And here we go, time for another one of Emily’s rants. I get a lot of comments on this blog saying things like ‘I have and Kindle and I love it, but I still love paper books!’ I have a friend who owns one and says as useful as it is, she’ll never stop buying real books. Well I’ve got news for you, guys. Sorry if it offends, but you can’t have both.
If you want to own a Kindle, knowing that it threatens to put bookshops and publishers out of business and stifle high-quality creative output by letting it get lost in a sea of self-publishing and digital ‘files’, you are not allowed to complain.
You’re not allowed to moan when your favourite newspaper stops producing print copies. You’re not allowed to grieve when your local independent goes out of business. Because you know what? It will be your fault. If you stop going to libraries and bookshops and buying from small publishers and supporting authors at events in real life, you’re not allowed to complain when those things disappear. If you buy more ebooks than print books, whether you like it or not, you’ll play a part in putting amazing places like South Kensington Books out of business.
When HMV went into administration, I listened to my friends complain about how there would be nowhere on the high street to browse, to fondle physical copies of the music and film they love, to talk to humans about them. Finally, I got fed up and asked them how many of them had actually gone to HMV in the last year and was met with silence. If you say you love something but don’t support it, what kind of love is that? It’s like not voting and then complaining when the candidate you wanted doesn’t win.
So listen to the Folio Society and take the lead from this gorgeous bookshop. If you love books, please, I beg of you, support the independents who really care. Support the man behind the till at the South Kensington bookshop who spent twenty minutes trying to locate the book a woman wanted, working from the single clue ‘They were talking about it on Radio 4 yesterday.’ Support my wonderful friend and former bookshop co-worker Wendy, whom I once watched patiently talk to a family for 30 minutes trying to find a perfect book for each of their three children. And support the values that made my dad come home from work every night just to turn the pages with his five-year-old, trace the words and letters with his finger and tuck her into bed before going back to work, just because he knew that those moments would be what mattered.