Today, the hunt took me back to Charing Cross Road and to a bookshop that’s not quite like any other. While most of the surviving bookshops on Charing Cross Road stock a more general collection of secondhand books, Koenig Books, London’s favourite art bookshop, stands out. Here in London we sometimes forget how lucky we are to have access to art in our daily lives; the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Saatchi Gallery and countless other small galleries are free, all of them have brilliant shops on-site and if that weren’t enough, the city is full of art bookshops. But none of these bookshops are as beloved as the three locations of Koenig Books, on Charing Cross Road, at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park and at the East End’s Whitechapel Gallery.
I must disclose right now that I’m no artist and I’m no connoisseur, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from standing dumb-struck in appreciative awe in front of beautiful works of art. A few days ago I showed a ten year old a picture of Monet’s ‘The Water-Lily Pond’ and despite knowing nothing about art, she responded to it on a level deeper than the intellectual; she wanted a copy of it to put up in her bedroom because it calmed her. If you’ve never felt that deep connection to a piece of art, the simultaneous joy at having found it and loss at knowing that in a couple of minutes you’ll have to leave it, don’t worry, you just haven’t found the right piece yet. Chances are, it’s here at Koenig where the books range from Renoir to Duchamp, Ancient Babylonian sculpture to contemporary South African photography, Japanese pottery to late Gothic carved altarpieces.
The decor of the bookshop is sleek and modern, with slim black shelves that stretch from floor to ceiling and don’t interfere with the books in any way. The walls, too, are painted black and left plain, to avoid anything taking your attention away from the books, which are all displayed with their covers out, like pieces of art in their own right. This is just right for a bookshop like this, where the focus should be on the beautiful hardcover, oversized, so-much-more-than-a-coffee-table books. Each one is given its own spot of honour on the shelf, with no hierarchy and no comment, so that you are invited to pick up any old book that looks compelling. Although some sections are arranged vaguely chronologically or vaguely geographically, they are, on the whole, just there. This does away with the intimidating aspect of art; you can be sure that all of the books deserve your attention just for their own sake, while not having to worry about whether it belongs to the right movement or circle or struggling to identify how it relates to the one next to it. Each book stands alone, for you to be the judge of whether it’s for you or not.
Another thing I like about this shop is that its definition of what constitutes an ‘art book’ is quite broad. All the books are different in size, format, texture and layout, so alongside your standard coffee-table Rembrandt you can look at, for instance, Jason Godfrey’s large hardcover Bibliographic: 100 Classic Graphic Design Books or Caroline Tisdall’s fantastic book of photographs of Joseph Beuys’ performance art piece Coyote. I, who have never knowingly paid a minute of attention to branding, found myself engrossed in a book about fonts and logos. The upstairs room is particularly good for these books, which are not technically art books, but still artistic. A table near the till includes political and artistic manifestos, books of poetry, odd bits of travel literature and, cryptically but not entirely surprisingly, Lewis Carroll’s The Jabberwocky. There are also biographies, books about architecture, fashion and pop culture and even the work of a couple of particularly arty poets. I saw a beautiful hardcover volume called 33 Poems by Robert Lax, an American poet I had never heard of in all my years of Poetry seminars, whose innovative use of parables and fables, prose poem aesthetics, disconcerting line structure and punctuation and unconventional typography are, I must agree, as artistic as they are poetic. There was another interesting non-art book by an author whose name I’ve forgotten and can’t find anywhere on the supposedly-omniscient interwebs. Regardless, it was another lovely hardcover called Cooking with Offal and – delightfully – I really couldn’t tell if it was a recipe book or poetry. Either way it’s something I don’t think I’d find in any other bookshop in London, and if it’s not in a London bookshop, for all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist.
Many of the books here are large hardcovers since that’s kind of the name of the game when it comes to art books. These, unfortunately, can be quite pricey. Thankfully, many of the books in the basement are significantly discounted, which means that instead of just quietly looking away from the book you know you’ll end up wanting, you can afford to actually pick it up and see. The accessibility of the books in this shop means that you never have to be afraid to pick one up, flip through it, even lean against one of the shelves as you pore over every page.
You’ll quickly discover that you’re actually very interested in things you never heard of, feel passionate about things you never even thought you’d like. By focusing its efforts on producing a wide selection of interesting books, Koenig allows you to leave behind any preconceived ideas about what real art is and asks you to move beyond time frames, movements and that copy of an Impressionist painting in your dentist’s office, reminding us that none of the pretentious, gratuitously clever stuff matters as much as ‘But which one makes you feel something!?’ Koenig brings discovery and emotion into book-hunting, so that instead of sweating anxiously while you try to figure out if it’s Monet or Manet you’re supposed to like, you can take back the conversation as you – yes, you, not some curator, but you, who can’t even draw a stick figure – are given the power to investigate, choose and marvel. Every time I go to Koenig Books I come out with a sense of awe at how many creative and innovative things there are in the world and at the unfathomable talent and originality of the people who make them.