I remember the first time I realised that not everyone enjoys a bookshop the way I do. I was with some friends of friends walking on Hampstead Heath and when we came out near Keats House, Daunt Books’ glowing green and gold worked their magic. The girls cooed, ‘Oh a bookshop, I looooove bookshops!’ Oh good, I thought, I’ve found some kindred spirits! I was thrilled to leave behind the awkward small talk and bond over books. So I felt cheated when, after five minutes in the fiction section, they were ready to go. Muggles.
I’ve since become aware of the two different types of browsers. There are those who pop in for a few minutes to enjoy the quiet or the warmth and give a cursory glance to a few books before quietly wandering out. Despite my ‘muggles’ comment, there’s nothing at all wrong with this kind of browsing. I think it’s lovely when someone on the way to do something else decides to spare a few moments to be with books.
But then there’s the second kind of browser. The kind who does not just pop in, but rather plans her entire day around the outing. The kind who looks at the spine of every single book, reads the backs of hundreds and flips through the pages of dozens, collecting a pile of ‘possibles’ as she goes along and keeping a wish list. This browser can spend hours walking around in circles, squatting as she reads the first chapter of a book on the bottom shelf and getting comfortable in chairs, stairways or doorframes. John Sandoe Books, which has been located on Blacklands Terrace, just off the King’s Road for over 40 years, is the ideal place for this kind of reader.
The shop spreads over the three floors, and on the busy ground floor you may have to squeeze through a wall of other browsers to view the shelves. It’s a popular shop and you sometimes have to share the space. It’s worth it. On the ground floor is a superb collection of fiction, classic and contemporary, history, cookery, gardening, art, architecture and, covering the staircase to the basement, philosophy, psychology and popular culture. There is also a bay of books from independent publishers – including Persephone Books and Slightly Foxed. The selection is extensive; anyone who’s anyone is represented and there is simply no room for the mediocre. The booksellers have chosen beautiful editions of old and new favourites that are made to be cherished, read, reread and passed along. It’s yet another reminder of why we still need booksellers, dedicated and passionate people who know books and want to share their favourites with the world.
The ground floor is busy; readers awkwardly dance around each other for a bit of floor space and the booksellers handle telephone enquiries and customers’ questions with expertise while running back and forth to put books on hold for loyal customers. It’s full of casual short-term browsers and the dedicated I-could-literally-spend-hours-here type. But the patient browser is rewarded with the luxury of space and privacy in the basement and the first floor, where those just popping in rarely make it. I was lucky enough to have both other floors to myself and was glad of the privacy.
I first made my way down to the basement, down a staircase covered in books for adults and children. I was particularly excited to see Kay Thompson’s Eloise books about a little girl who lives in the penthouse of the Plaza Hotel in New York City and causes all kinds of trouble and headaches for adults. Thomspon was American so while her books are quite popular there, but they’re a bit less common over here. Which is a shame because they’re delightful. You can also see Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand – about a pacifist bull who prefers prancing in meadows to fighting in rings – peeking out. The staircase alone (which, like every other surface at John Sandoe is absolutely covered with books) indicates that this is a good place for children’s books.
And down in the basement, even the greatest poetry enthusiast will brush past the poetry section and head towards the beautiful, colourful and inviting children’s section. Once again, the shelves, the tabletops and the little chair are all covered in books and there is not a mediocre one in the bunch. It’s the kind of children’s section parents and children alike must dream of, where whether you’re seven or sixty-two you could pick up any book and trust it to be a winner. In the end, I came home with Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline. I don’t often buy children’s books, especially not when I know there must be a copy lying in some box or hidden on some shelf at my parents’ house. But I just couldn’t resist little Madeline because I happened to have been thinking about her just a few days earlier and remembering the original book’s legendary beginning: ‘In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.’ It’s a simple and perfect beginning to a sweet and timeless story.
I also gave in to temptation in the much larger than average poetry section in the basement. I decided to buy two books of poetry: one by a giant and one by a rising star. The first was Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist which contains his moving poem ‘Digging,’ which many journalists quoted in the wake of his death about a month ago. In many ways it is a statement of Heaney’s goals and intentions as a poet and I wanted to have a copy of it. When I heard that Heaney had died I was surprised at how upset I was. I didn’t even know him! But then, I had read his poetry, so in a way, I did. The second was Memorial by Alice Oswald, a creative re-writing of The Iliad which has recently made her the first poet to win the Warwick Prize.
And finally, I headed to the first floor, where I was surrounded by paperback fiction and biography. The names of authors marched around the four walls in alphabetical order, while biographies of writers, philosophers, politicians, composers and other important and interesting figures filled the shelves in the middle. Ever since I read Ulysses, I have had my eye on Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce. Unfortunately it’s massive and I already had three books under my arm so it will remain on my wish list.
But I could still enjoy standing in the middle of that room with bookshelves full to bursting and books everywhere else. Now, readers, when I get left alone in a room full of books, I get weird. I stroke their spines and spread my arms out across the shelves to gather them in. I sniff their pages and I whisper to the authors. ‘No no, you’re much too conventional, I’m in the mood for someone like…her! Yes, you, you’re great.’ I must have become so involved in the books that I didn’t hear as one of the booksellers came upstairs. As I looked up at the wall of books behind me I let out a loud sigh of contentment. And heard a woman’s soft chuckle behind me. I turned around, embarrassed, but the bookseller just looked and me and smiled. I knew she was like me. The kind of reader who will structure her day around a bookshop, spend hours hiding in a quiet corner or whisper to a long-dead poet. In a place like John Sandoe Books, the weird ones like us are right at home.