The Cut is a busy South London street that runs from Southwark station to Waterloo. The home of both the Old Vic and the Young Vic, it is a thriving part of the area and, more importantly, of London’s theatre scene. The Calder Bookshop Theatre, right across from the Young Vic – recently dubbed London’s sexiest theatre by TimeOut – is one of those peculiar creatures that is so weirdly amazing and anomalous that it could only exist in London.
The shop, which moonlights as a theatre, specialises in theatre books, by which I mean books about drama, criticism and theory about theatre and performance and an unrivaled selection of plays from across the world, stretching all the way back to Ancient Greek tragedy and forward into experimental contemporary pieces. Drama is one of those genres – like poetry – that tends to be marginalised in most bookshops, given one shelf of the same old names and tacked on to the end of Fiction like an afterthought. But not here! At the Calder Bookshop, plays – appropriately – take centre stage. There are discounted classic novels on the tables outside and the table in the centre of the one large room that makes up the shop, but the emphasis really is not on them.
After you’ve made your way through the Books on Theatre area that greets you when you enter, you realise that about three quarters of the shelf space in the shop is dedicated to plays, organised in alphabetical order. The editions range from Penguin Classics editions of Aeschylus to pocket-sized copies of plays by lesser known playwrights, published by small arty publishing houses. It’s no surprise that in a bookshop less than a mile away from Shakespeare’s Globe, that the Bard has his own section, which is stocked with Arden editions (the very best) of all his plays. However, despite the focus on this local hero, on the whol the selection has a refreshingly international outlook. Although European plays still predominate (the kings of the roost are gentlemen like Moliere, Chekov, Beckett, Sartre, Ibsen and Strindberg), the effort has clearly been made to include work by classic and contemporary South American and African writers in particular. These are baby steps to be sure, but there decidedly in the right direction.
Finally, the remaining space is dedicated to Politics and Philosophy. While both are quite Marx-heavy and noticeably veer toward the left, the selection is thoughtful and interesting, cementing the shop’s claim that it does more than just plays. The philosophy books on offer present a wide range and, again, cover most of the big names from Ancient Greece to the late twentieth century, Plato to Lacan. It was here that I spotted the book I ended up coming home with. If you’re not familiar with Penguin’s Great Ideas series, you really ought to check them out. The small just-bigger-than-pocket-sized books are new editions of the essays, books and treatises that changed the world. Among the repetoire are hefty texts like Mary Wollestonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Woman, Sun-tzu’s The Art of War, Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto and Darwin’s On Natural Selection. This series, in my opinion, does more to prove that words can change the world than any amount of academic philosophical waxing ever could. I bought their edition Proust’s long essay Days of Reading a while ago from the Kennington Bookshop and ever since, I’ve been quite evangelical about the joys of the series. Today, I bought Thorstein Veblen’s Conspicuous Consumption for £4.99 and just can’t wait to tuck into the deliciously anti-capitalist rant.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the shop, the thing which makes it such a typical London establishment, is that in the back it holds a wonderful surprise. At night, the back room serves as a theatre, where drama-lovers and book-lovers can come together to be inspired by the work of playwrights past and present, all conveniently brought together under one roof. The events are always changing, so check out their website if you feel like tagging along for a workshop, a play or an evening of cinema. Like London itself, The Calder Bookshop Theatre is the kind of place where random and delightful things just kind of happen sometimes, without warning or announcement or advertising, as if they’ve sprung right out of the imagination of some surrealist artist and into life fully-formed.