Every time I walk across Waterloo Bridge, or wander through Borough Market or see Christmas lights twinkling in Sloane Square, I can’t help but think how lucky I am to live in London. London, which has bred, housed, welcomed and inspired so many of my favourite writers over the centuries, is a place where daily life is infused with remnants of the past. So, it is appropriate that in a city where there are so many new, young, vibrant bookshops, there should also be old ones, telling the youngsters to bide their time, teaching them lessons they can’t possibly understand yet and anchoring them in the city’s long and great tradition of sharing stories.
Hatchards, the oldest bookshop in London, has catered to booklovers since 1797. That’s 216 years ago, or, if you’re more literary-minded, the year that Samuel T. Coleridge took opium and wrote Kubla Khan and Pride and Prejudice was still a humble manuscript called First Impressions. Think about this for a minute. Its shelves have held first editions of every person’s favourite book since 1797. People stopped in to pick up a copy of Jane Eyre, the new novel by Currer Bell they’d been hearing so much about. They queued outside to buy Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928 just as they queued outside to buy Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007. And it’s still there today, a grand and imposing facade on Piccadilly that can still draw browsers, literary pilgrims, history buffs and some of the biggest names in contemporary literature through its doors.
When I popped in the other day, it was decked out in Christmas finery, with garlands and boughs of holly draped over every door frame and all the way up the stairs. The beautiful old staircase that sweeps you up and down five storeys of this old bookshop is at the centre of the shop and one of its loveliest features. Lovely, thoughtful displays of books pop up now and then on landings, providing company as the throng of tourists thins with each passing floor. The ground floor, where fiction and bestsellers live, was buzzing with conversation and had a festive feel, but on the upper floors you get a bit more privacy, as you move away from the Top 10s and towards specialist sections like Children’s Books, Cookery, Art, Design, Travel, Fantasy, Crime and even a section on Alcoholic Drinks…oh there’s everything.
What I love most about Hatchards is that it has the charm and history of a little independent but with the stock of the big Waterstones only a few doors away. Whereas a smaller bookshop might have a carefully curated selection of books in popular genres, Hatchards seems to stock every book in even the most obscure genres. And yet there’s still a touch of individuality and the sense that there are booksellers floating around labyrinth of rooms who know what they’re talking about and would love to tell you what you should be reading next. Indeed, they have helpfully suggested a range of ‘Boxing Day Reads’ for us, which I inspected and can assure you would be perfect for a quiet day wearing jammies and sipping hot chocolate. The other categories on tables in this room are much more thoughtful than your standard ‘Fiction’, ‘Non-fiction’ and ‘Bestsellers’; they include ‘Worldly Women’, ‘Transport Yourself’ and ‘Masters of the Craft.’ With these inventive and creative suggestions, Hatchards is playing its part in earning back the customers’ love from impersonal websites and breathing personality, community and that breathless and confidential, ‘Oh! You have to read…’ back into bookselling.
One of my favourite of these sections is ‘A Hard Hobbit to Break,’ where you can find many editions of Tolkien’s novels – the famous and less famous – as well as other books, including Beowulf and the Old Norse Edda. These personal touches make you feel that you’ve got a very well-read and generous friend looking out for you to make sure that you’ll never be without a good book to read. And besides, haven’t we all had that experience of loving a book so much that you don’t want it to end? And then reading everything else the author wrote and anything similar that might let you keep feeling the same feeling?
All of the sections are exceptionally well-stocked, but I particularly enjoyed the children’s department, which takes up much of the first floor. Books for children and teens are arranged (by age) all around the first room of the first floor, but picture books for younger children have their own little annex, a room pale blue like a robin’s egg or a baby’s nursery with excellent books that children and adults alike will love. I knelt down to rifle through the Oliver Jeffers section and read The Heart and the Bottle, one of my favourite Jeffers books which, incidentally, would make a great Christmas present for a kid or a grown-up.
But despite the amazing selection of new books I want to read, I left with an old favourite, A Tale of Two Cities. My tattered old copy is at my parent’s house but I’m going to need a copy to read very soon. You see, every year since I was about fourteen or so, I’ve read Dickens at Christmas. It’s something of a tradition and I figured that the oldest bookshop in London is the perfect place to keep that tradition alive.
A lot of people think I read Dickens because he wrote A Christmas Carol, the story that people say created the English Christmas. And hence, the American Christmas. And hence, the modern commoditized, commercialised Christmas. And maybe it started that way, but in the years since I’ve been keeping this little tradition, it’s grown into something more. Perhaps the reason that I now associate Dickens with Christmas has something to do with his world view, the way that he sees beyond individual lives and trials and into the heart of the world, of which every king in his castle and every beggar on the street is an integral part. And though I’ve now read A Tale of Two Cities seven or eight times, I will never get bored of it because for me, it’s a tradition. Sometimes I think that Dickens’ Sydney Carton had more to do with the formation of my personality than any real person did. Sydney Carton taught me that all people have the potential to be good, even if they seem nasty sometimes. He taught me more about generosity, selflessness and sacrifice than I ever learned in a school or a church. He taught me that the good people in the world will always do the right thing – quietly and with dignity – simply because they know it’s right, without gloating or proclaiming it to the world or expecting glory or fame.
And so, as my personal way of saying thank you to the character and the author and the incredible story that mean so very much to me, I bought a new copy of A Tale of Two Cities at Hatchards. It’s a bookshop that has seen and held and been part of so many stories that I wanted to add my own little tradition to its history. When I read it this year, I’ll think of traditions and the importance of keeping old things, even in a world where we’re meant to think of everything as disposable. Like all of our favourite stories, the places where they’ve lived for centuries may become familiar but they can never be boring. They continue to grow with us, gathering and preserving our most precious memories, which sit, waiting to be remembered and retold.