There was a time in my life when I went to this bookshop two or three times a week. It made sense, really; it was on my way home. Okay, it was one way home. Okay, it was twenty minutes out of the way. I called it the scenic route.
But Henry Pordes was worth the time I ‘wasted’ and the money I spent on it. It was the first of the Charing Cross Road bookshops that I discovered when I first moved to London and so I think I subconsciously compare every other shop I enter to this one.
Charing Cross Road is perhaps one of the most famous book-buying destinations in the world, thanks in large part to Helene Hanff’s brilliant novel about her post-war correspondance with Marks & Co., a bookshop that used to be at 84 Charing Cross Road. If you haven’t read it, it’s a short epistolary novel that you can get through in a couple of hours and it’s definitely worth it. I’d offer to lend you my copy, but tragically, I read the entire thing on a plane and then stupidly left it there. But books never disappear. No one, upon finding a stray book, would drop it in the bin; something about it wouldn’t let you. You’d put it in a lost and found, or leave it behind somewhere where it would stay dry, or maybe donate it to a secondhand bookshop. And if it were lucky, it would end up on Charing Cross Road.
Henry Pordes is busy at almost all times of day and its visitors include: 1. frazzled Arts & Humanities undergraduates, 2. awestruck American tourists, 3. antiquarian book dealers consulting on acquisitions or trying to sell their own books, 4. old men wearing tweed who head straight for the history section and 5. wanderers whose facial expressions indicate that they’ve never been here before and had no idea how good a decision they just made by walking in.
The shop’s front had been undergoing renovation for the past couple of weeks, but when I went yesterday its beautiful front window was once again visible from the street. In this window are the books that trap you. First editions of books of poetry, comics, art books, political commentaries, modern classics and not-so-modern classics are displayed proudly in the front window, and continue inside, covering the upper walls of the main room. It doesn’t surprise me that the more valuable, antiquarian books are kept either high out of reach or behind glass. I mean, it disappoints me of course, because just to touch them would be more than lowly English students dream of, but I get it. Fortunately, they are still visible and give the shop an air of gravity; you feel that you’re in the presence of history, of genius and, essentially, of humanity’s greatest achievements.
On the ground floor, there is an entire corner whose three sides are covered with literary theory and literary biography. I came here once while writing my dissertation on Ezra Pound and found, in this section, a book called Ezra Pound’s Chinese Friends. I thought it might end up being somehow relevant, and as it wasn’t very expensive I bought it. It ended up being so useful that it became the central text in that dissertation. It just goes to show that sometimes we humans don’t really know what we need, and if we were only ever to pursue the exact thing that we want, because we want it, right now, we would miss out on finding the things that we never knew we needed or, as a recent New Yorker article put it, ‘the book beside the book’ that you were looking for. Also on this floor is a small room in the back full of history and political books, a shelf of big, hardcover children’s classics and an admirably well-stocked collection of art books. There was a beautiful hardcover book of full colour paintings by Modigliani that was £16 – much cheaper than the retail price – but still to expensive for me. What I did buy in the end came from the basement.
Downstairs are the travel, more art, psychology, fiction, poetry and drama sections, as the map of the shop at the top of the stairs indicates. Yes, there’s a map of this bookshop. I think there’s something so romantic about the idea that a visitor might need a map to keep him/herself from getting lost in the basement and never coming out. In the fiction section, I bought a copy of Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence for only £4. I have read the book before but realised lately that I don’t have a copy and might soon be in a position where I need one so I wanted to invest. It’s always difficult buying a copy of a book you’ve already read. You have to weigh up your options and decide whether to go for a cheap copy (you have already read it, so aesthetics shouldn’t be that big a deal the second time round) or spring for a more expensive copy (this is a book you’re going to read twice; surely you want a copy worth a second go-around, right?). I settled for something in the middle, with a solid, sturdy Penguin classics edition at a third of the retail price. I also bought a hardcover copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad for £3.50, which is about about a fifth of retail price.
Other highlights of this basement are the bay full of Folio Society editions of classic novels. As anyone who regularly follows this blog is already aware, I adore the Folio Society. Their recent tube adverts which read ‘Re-kindle your love of beautiful books’ are delightfully sassy. And with a whole shelf of these gorgeous editions stretching from floor to ceiling, I feel that I could be perfectly happy without ever leaving this room.
One of the volume’s in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is called Books do Furnish a Room and I think the man is onto something with this statement. Although many of my arguments against ‘e-books’ are more intellectual and political than ‘But books are pretty!’, sometimes that’s the one that resonates with people most. And it is the argument that the shelves of Henry Pordes quietly put forwards themselves. The way we buy books is different from the way we buy any other commodity, whether it’s food or clothes or…what else do normal people spend their money on? We buy books not only for ourselves, but to put them against the other books we have, in the hopes that our shelves will say something about who we are as people. We buy them not only for ourselves, but also for the friends who’ll borrow them, the family members who’ll steal and probably never return them, the children who’ll inherit them and the strangers who’ll find them in the basement of a bookshop one day.
The sight of straight lines of books, standing proudly spine to spine, row upon row like soldiers, resolute in the battle against their obsolescence, warm a bibliophile’s heart. More than any list on a screen, these rows of books remind us not only of the books we’ve read and through them the things we’ve learned and the journeys we’ve taken, but also of the many books we haven’t read. They are the ones we want to read, the ones sitting on our shelves waiting and burning with the need for recognition in the backs of our minds. They speak to the ingenuity and creativity of all those writers who came before us and all those readers who treasured their books as long as they lived, until those hallowed volumes ended up here. In a way, Charing Cross Road is book-heaven.