Covered in beautiful purple flowers and the overspill of vines from the house next door, Walden Books is an inconspicuous fairy tale cottage hiding on a quiet residential street in Chalk Farm, a refuge just moments away from the noise and confusion of Camden Lock Market.
Outside, inexpensive fiction and poetry books draw wanderers in for a quick browse through the books outside on the terrace. The brave or curious venture further, into the bookshop itself. The little brass bell that announces the entrance of a customer probably only rings a dozen times a day, so the shop attendant will notice you. He’s a lovely, friendly man who waved me through to the back room without having to surrender my bag. I’m shocked but delighted to learn that I don’t look like the kind of person who’s going to steal books. Luckily, I got the chance to browse through the small, cramped shop privately, with only one other customer arriving as I was on my way out.
The front room has antiquarian books and a whole bay full of secondhand books about London, ranging from the recent to the antiquarian and covering different areas of the city. Sneaking past the till, I squeezed into the small back room. For the limited amount of space, Walden Books has an impressive selection of secondhand books. Books are everywhere, organised horizontally, vertically and diagonally. For the most part they are actually in vague alphabetical order (miraculously), but there are some who spill off the shelves and huddle on the floor at their feet. The large column in the middle (covered by books) makes the room feel more cramped, but provides a little bit of privacy so that browsers can hide in corners surrounded by the smell of paper and imagine that they’re completely alone. In these quiet corners, the browser will find fiction and poetry as well as a huge selection of plays. Normally, when you ask to be directed to the drama section, you encounter one shelf. Fifty percent of it is occupied by William Shakespeare. He’s absolutely brilliant, of course, and deserves his spot in all of our hearts and on all of our shelves, but has drama not progressed at all in the last 400 years? Answer me, Waterstones!! The other half will be filled with various copies of A Streetcar Named Desire, Doctor Faustus, Death of a Salesman and, if you’re lucky, an Ibsen or two. It’s all very limiting and predictable. But at Walden Books, the plays – dug up from some very interesting people’s attics, I have no doubt – represent a huge range of time periods, cultures and genres. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s worth going and browsing around just to get some new ideas in your head. I have a little red notebook that I carry around with me whenever I go into bookshops to write down the names of books and authors I discover. The list is so long now that I’ll probably never get through them all, but for some reason writing them down makes me feel one step closer to having read them.
A whole wall of the middle column is dedicated to poetry. Again, it’s refreshing to see variety rather than the one typical one bay dominated by Keats, Shelley, T.S. Eliot and Carol Ann Duffy. Again, all are brilliant, but there’s so much more out there! My favourite discovery in Walden’s today was a copy of Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems. It felt slightly serendipitous since just the other day I almost got sucked into buying a book of Pound’s translations of Chinese poetry for £4 at the Southbank Book Market. The best thing about it was that someone had tucked a clipping from the Times in April 1970 into the front of the book. The clipping contained a poem by Pound which I think was called ‘The Pigeons’ which I have mysteriously not been able to find mention of anywhere else. Is anyone able to illuminate? Whenever see something stuck in a secondhand book, I can’t help but wonder what the thought process of the bookseller is when s/he finds it. Does it cross his/her mind to throw it in the bin, as the refuse of an older reader, of does it get to stay in because it adds to the value of the book? I sincerely hope it’s the latter.
Other areas covered on the shelves of Walden Books are local history, philosophy (and it’s a fantastic selection by the way), fiction, natural history, sociology and anthropology. I came very close to buying and 1959 edition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the anthropological study of mythology and religions upon which T.S. Eliot based many parts of The Waste Land. For those who aren’t familiar with my obsession with Eliot, suffice it to say that I think of my life in terms of ‘before I read The Waste Land‘ and after. The book was only £5 and had a lovely inscription on the inside front cover – ‘To Kate, on your 17th birthday.’
Despite the clutter, the confusion, the awkwardness of being one of two strangers in a very small space and the unorthodox collection of books, there is something beautiful about Walden Books. It’s messy, scattered, dusty and dingy. It’s madness, yet there is method in’t. It is full of a chaotic promise, that if you have the patience to sit and look, turn pages and inspect overleaves, you too can be part of something magical. It doesn’t have the sanitary neatness of a chain bookshop or – worse – of your Kindle’s ‘library’ if we must use the word, but it has something infinitely better. It reminds us of the simple beauty of a row of old books and the promises they make to anyone brave enough to pick them up.