Today, the penultimate day of Independent Booksellers’ Week, I’d like to introduce you to one of my all-time favourite bookshops. But first, I’d like to take a second to thank everyone who has written such lovely comments here. I don’t always reply to every one, but I read them all and I appreciate you sharing your stories with me. Many people tell me about the libraries and bookshops they loved when they were growing up, their favourite novels and the state of things in their hometowns all over the world. Many people ask me questions about books and bookshops. There are two questions that I have been asked over and over again, which are, ‘Have you been to Shakespeare & Co. in Paris?’ (Answer: yes, it was heaven but it was before I had this blog) and ‘Have you read 84 Charing Cross Road?’ (Answer: Of course I have.) If you haven’t, the book, by Helen Hanff, is a short epistolary novel that documents the correspondence between an American book-collector and the staff of a bookshop on Charing Cross Road during World War II. Over the years, the correspondents grow closer and they discuss books, their lives and the events of the war. It played a part in immortalising London’s amazing ‘street of bookshops.’ The number of bookshops on the road has dwindled since its glory days, but there are still some good ones going strong. I love living in a city that has a street of bookshops and so, in addition to praising Quinto & Francis Edwards, one of the nicest bookshops in the area, I’d like to pay homage to this road, one of my favourite places in London.
I’ve been meaning to write about Quinto for ages and started to feel more and more guilty about it as I’ve slowly ticked off the majority of the Charing Cross Road bookshops. In fact, the only ones I haven’t written about are Foyles, Blackwell’s and one other small discount bookshop, which effectively means that this is the last on my list of the proper ones. A Proper Charing Cross Road Bookshop is a lovely creature and becoming a rarer and rarer breed. In the four years that I’ve been living in London I’ve seen two shut their doors. Bookshops close for all kinds of reasons – increased rent, retirement or the unpredicatble events of life. I always feel a bittersweet relief to learn that a bookshop has closed because the owners are moving on to another project rather than buckling under the yoke of Amazon. Not every sad thing that happens is Amazon’s fault, as much as I’d love to absolutely demonise them. Because they’re evil. But the reality is that over the years, things have changed, London has changed and so, of course has Charing Cross Road. That’s what makes The Proper Charing Cross Road Bookshops (hereafter referred to as PCCRB) so special.
Quinto, the epitome of a PCCRB, has that special charm, that sense of magic and mystery that a room covered all the way around with books always conjures up. These shops tend to be small, quiet places, that specialise in secondhand books. They often have dangerously steep little stairwells leading to dusty, low-ceilinged basements and books popping out of every spare inch. Foyles is a kind of honourary member of the clan, because of its humble beginnings as one of many bookshops on the road and its dedication to preserving the character of the area. But its massive size also sets it apart in a way. That’s not a criticism; it’s a great bookshop which is modern and accessible and has a great selection. It has a magic all its own, but it’s not the quaint and quirky kind that defines Quinto and the PCCRBs.
Quinto & Francis Edwards is actually two bookshops, integrated into one. The ground floor is Francis Edwards, a bookshop based in Hay-on-Wye that specialises in rare and antiquarian books. The ground floor of its London location is full of beautiful old books. Most of these come from personal libraries that were sold or donated to the bookshop, so the collection reflects the idiosyncrasies that I think we all hope our collections will represent by the time we’re old. There are lovely hardcover sets of the Complete Works of Dickens which you can buy individually or as a set if you don’t have the heart to break them up, and other antiquarian books. There are also rare and first editions of twentieth century books. Finally, there are massive collections of slightly odder books, including travel, history and sports selections. Because many of this are antiquarian, it’s quite funny to pick up the outdated takes on history that couldn’t possibly belong anywhere but on the shelves of a secondhand bookshop.
Quinto is downstairs, and it stocks a more general selection of secondhand books, some of which are fairly recent (the entire Twilight series graced the children’s section – what can you do?) and some of which were very old. In the A-Z Fiction section I found two special books, sitting together on top of the other books, tucked in on top of a row that was already full. The first was a 1986 first edition of Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald. While that’s hardly old enough to be considered rare, what made it so special was, of course, a dedication on the first leaf. The date indicates that Joe gave the book to his mum on her birthday in 1986, when Innocence was a brand new release. Carrying this little bit of human history, it was for sale for only £3. Sitting with it was a first edition of William Faulkner’s 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust. It was £8 and I wanted it so much, but after spending £5.95 on a hardcover at Treadwell’s yesterday, I had to leave it for another time.
Which, at Quinto, is always a bit of a gamble. The basement is restocked once a month, so that all the books in stock get a chance to shine. This is great because it means that every time you come in, you’ll find a different selection. It’s not so great if you saw something there once and were hoping it would still be sitting there in the exact same place. The staff are very friendly and happy to help you locate books, but sometimes you just have to accept defeat. When this happens, you can soothe your disappointed soul by rummaging through more books. I particularly recommend the History and Foreign Languages sections, as well as POETRY! I tend to moan about how little attention most bookshops pay to poetry, but here it’s well-represented. Three whole shelves are absolutely packed with everything from your classic Donne, Keats and Byron to Billy Collins and Mimi Khalvati. For a bookshop that feels old and almost crumbling (in the most charming way, I promise), it’s a bit strange to see contemporary poetry, but it’s a very welcome addition.
My one piece of advice is that this is not the place to go when you’re in a hurry. I told myself going in today that I had half an hour only. The bookshop is small enough, so that should be enough time to get around and get a sense of the place. If only the basement weren’t so cosy! If only the walls weren’t covered in beautiful copies of old friends and the promises of treasures to be discovered, I could have made a quick circle round and left. But I didn’t want to be pulled away from it. I wanted to banish everyone else and curl up in the corner of this rare quiet place in Central London and never leave. It’s how I feel about all the PCCRBs. They’re too special to leave, too special to lose. This row of bookshops, standing strong and willfully anachronistic in the face of a world that thinks it’s too busy for them, deserve to be loved and appreciated and preserved. They’re a reminder that no matter how advanced our technology becomes, no matter how loud and busy and impersonal our cities are, there can still be peaceful places, like inside the pages of a book, where you can retreat, curl up and be alone in the quiet with words and stories.