Tag Archives: Charing Cross Road

Foyles

IMG_2826Foyles, 107 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DT  

For many years, Foyles was at 119 Charing Cross Road. Founded in 1903 when the brothers Foyle sold their textbooks after failing their civil service entrance exams, it moved to the heart of the West End and the street of books in 1906. It took off and the brothers went from selling books out of their mother’s kitchen to owning one of the world’ most famous bookshops. Charing Cross Road is a very special place for books and book-lovers and Foyles has long been the jewel in its crown. With its erratic shelving, its labyrinthine corridors, Christina Foyle’s Literary Lunches and Ray’s Jazz cafe, this bookshop has become a London favourite a second home to many a frazzled Literature undergraduate. Its history is so long, illustrious, confusing and entertaining that I won’t try to tell it here. But if you’re interested in how 119 Charing Cross Road came to be, you can read more on the Foyles website. If, like me, you have a soft spot for misanthropic Luddites, give Christina Foyle’s obituary a try.

When I first went to Foyles, it had largely modernised, leaving behind its days as the world’s most infuriating bookshop. It was still a higgledy-piggledy mess of genres and a maze of floors and stairs and lifts, but they had abolished the now-infamous system whereby, for many years, you had to queue twice to buy a book: you’d queue for a hand-written note in the section where the book belonged (not necessarily the section where you’d find it, of course) then again when you brought the note and the book down to the main IMG_2820till. If you mixed things up you’d have to go back upstairs with your book and do the whole thing over again. While I may have missed the glory days of disorganisation, Foyles was still a place that marched to the beat of its own drum. The staff were always a little bit quirky. Some quiet corners were so isolated that you’d suddenly look up from a book and realise that you hadn’t seen or heard a human for 20 minutes and anxiously poke your head out to make sure the rest of the shop was still there. The segues between different subjects never quite made sense (you’d walk along rows of shelves on 20th century Middle Eastern history and then suddenly find yourself surrounded by books about Alchemy) and the books on display were consistently, even stubbornly, alternative. As a student, I spent many hours in Foyles, partly for the atmosphere and partly because its selection of academic books and obscure novels made it absolutely necessary to anyone trying to avoid buying books on Amazon. I remember rushing around London trying to find books in Waterstone’s branches, secondhand bookshops and university libraries, all the while knowing that the only place that would have them would be Foyles. Some of the books I found at Foyles and nowhere else were: Bug-Jargal by Victor Hugo, Cane by Jean Toomer, Country of my Skull by Antjie Krog and Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein. Yes, Foyles was a lifesaver for me countless times, but it was also one of my favourite places in the world.

So, imagine my anxiety when I learned that it would be leaving 119 Charing Cross Road, closing up the old shop and moving down the road to number 107. I admit that to most people, this was barely news. To me, it hinted of catastrophe. The idea of Foyles being anything other than the place I knew and loved activated those human fears of loss and change and for about a year I mostly pretended it wasn’t going to happen. At the Hay Festival in 2013, we went to listen to Miriam Robinson (then Head of Marketing) and Alex Lifschutz, the architect of the new Foyles. They talked about the changing industry and the importance of making bookshops cultural destinations in their own right and about finding the balance between tradition and innovation. I was reassured but unconvinced. When the new Foyles opened up in the summer, I was anxious. The first time we went I tried to be balanced and to reserve judgement. The second and third times it felt really strange. I’ve now been in about ten times since it reopened. It was on about the 8th visit that I admitted to myself, ‘Okay, I really love this place.’ When I went again this weekend, I realised I might love it even more than the old Foyles.

IMG_2825When you walk in, you are greeted with a huge sign that announces, ‘Welcome book-lover, you are among friends.’ While I don’t love the way this is punctuated, the sentiment is one that fills my heart with good will. Here is a place where we belong! The people who come to the new Foyles are, honestly, the loveliest bunch. Where are the arrogant philistines expounding all the reasons that Toni Morrison is actually overrated? Where are the giggling couples hiding in corners and the creepy old men loitering around the books about sex? Where are the talkative hipsters who think a peaceful bookshop is the perfect place to impose their reading of Proust upon innocent passersby? Here there are only quiet hipsters and real book-lovers. It’s as if this temple of books and reading casts a spell on browsers and makes them act like decent human beings. It’s like heaven!

Foyles, Foyles, Foyles! It makes me so happy that this place exists! The ground floor has bestsellers and hot of the press books, as well as magazines, art IMG_2824and architecture books and gifts. The lower ground floor has a huge children’s book section with expertly-chosen books and knowledgeable staff. It is also home to cookery, travel and craft books. At Foyles, none of these are token one-shelf sections but comprehensive overviews of a whole genre. Then there is the amazing fiction section that takes up most of the first floor. Here you’ll find the Highlights section which draws attention to some amazing contemporary books you might have missed and the staff recommendations which are wonderful. It is global in its scope and the books on display are impeccably selected. This floor houses literary fiction, graphic novels, crime, fantasy, science fiction and a huge poetry section. There are also plenty of beautiful editions of classics, IMG_2818including my favourites, the Folio Society editions. Upstairs, on floors 2,3 and 4, you will find books on every subject under the sun. Foyles has books on all of the major subjects: History and Politics broken down by geographical region, biography, religions, philosophy, science, maths, sport, travel, music, law, medical, business, economics, film, drama, nature, health, Women’s studies, Culture, LGBT studies and a tiny section about Transport for London where I found a geeky but very interesting book about the history of the names of all the London Underground Stations. Flipping through it, I learned that my area of London used to be called Battlebridge because it was the site of a IMG_2819bridge over the River Fleet where the battle between Boudicca and the Romans was fought. I think that’s far more interesting than ‘King’s Cross’ and I’m glad that I know it. Foyles also has a world-class selection of Foreign Language books and a great music section, where you can find CDs, books about music and sheet music. Can you believe all of this is in one shop?!

On the fifth floor you’ll find the Foyles cafe, the perfect place to have tea and cake and admire your purchases. It’s a bright and lovely cafe full of almost entirely bright and lovely people and it’s quite an ideal place to re-energise after IMG_2822you’ve climbed your way up to the fifth floor and spent ages looking at books. At Hay, Miriam Robinson talked about how going to bookshops in the 21st century has to be an event. Well, in my household, ‘going to Foyles’ has become a perfectly acceptable thing to say that you’re doing this weekend. (Disclaimer: this may not be the case across the board; we are very bookish people and don’t get out much). Nevertheless, we can spend hours there, particularly if after our browse and our tea and cake, we’re going to one of the many events and talks that Foyles hosts. Foyles really is a place where you might go for a day out, the way you would go to a museum or gallery. In my eyes, it’s a complete success.

And now it’s time to tell you about my spoils. I bought A Tale for the Time Being IMG_2816by Ruth Ozeki. When it first came out, Foyles (the old Foyles!) had a beautiful limited edition hardcover that I never got around to buying and now they don’t make them any more. I have finally accepted this and bought the paperback edition. I started reading it the same day and it’s great so far. I also bought The Vegetarian by the Korean writer Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith and The Hen who Dreamed she Could Fly by another female Korean writer, Sun-Mi Hwang translated by Chi-Young Kim. I should also mention that when I was in the shop 2 weeks ago, I bought another lovely Pushkin Press edition of Journey by Moonlight by the Hungarian author Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix. I have since finished it and it is beautiful – ironic, playful, emotional but not melodramatic, and highly intellectual. I definitely recommend it. Foyles, like any good bookshop, is a great place for discovering international writers you might not have heard of and giving them a try. In my experience, it’s almost always worth it.

So go and visit! It doesn’t matter when! There will always be knowledgeable staff IMG_2823who recommend excellent books. There will always be books on display that make you think and feel and want to act. At the moment, the Penguin Little Black Classics line the stairwells all the way up to the fifth floor. It may not be number 119, but the new Foyles will make you fall in love with books and bookselling all over again. I wasn’t sure at first. I missed its old home and mourned my student days getting lost in those meandering shelves. But I promise you, 107 Charing Cross Road is a very good place. The spirit of Foyles is still here and this new home is one of my favourite places in the world.

 

Quinto & Francis Edwards

IMG_2044Quinto Bookshop & Francis Edwards, 72 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0BB

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 IMG_2040Bookshop 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.

IMG_2043Quinto & 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 IMG_2042don’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 IMG_2041books, 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 IMG_2039month, 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.

IMG_2037My 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.

Koenig Books

IMG_2018Koenig Books, 80 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0BF

Today, the hunt took me back to Charing Cross Road and to a bookshop that’s  not quite like any other.   While most of the surviving bookshops on Charing Cross Road stock a more general collection of secondhand books, Koenig Books, London’s favourite art bookshop, stands out. Here  in London we sometimes forget how lucky we are to have access to art in our daily lives; the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Saatchi Gallery and countless other small galleries are free, all of them have brilliant shops on-site and if that weren’t enough, the city is full of art bookshops.  But none of these bookshops are as beloved as the three locations of Koenig Books, on Charing Cross Road, at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park and at the East End’s Whitechapel Gallery.

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I must disclose right now that I’m no artist and I’m no connoisseur, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from standing dumb-struck in appreciative awe in front of IMG_2016beautiful works of art.  A few days ago I showed a ten year old a picture of Monet’s ‘The Water-Lily Pond’ and despite knowing nothing about art, she responded to it on a level deeper than the intellectual; she wanted a copy of it to put up in her bedroom because it calmed her. If you’ve never felt that deep connection to a piece of art, the simultaneous joy at having found it and loss at knowing that in a couple of minutes you’ll have to leave it, don’t worry, you just haven’t found the right piece yet.  Chances are, it’s here at Koenig where the books range from Renoir to Duchamp, Ancient Babylonian sculpture to contemporary South African photography, Japanese pottery to late Gothic carved altarpieces.

The decor of the bookshop is sleek and modern, with slim black shelves that IMG_2009stretch from floor to ceiling and don’t interfere with the books in any way.  The walls, too, are painted black and left plain, to avoid anything taking your attention away from the books, which are all displayed with their covers out, like pieces of art in their own right. This is just right for a bookshop like this, where the focus should be on the beautiful hardcover, oversized, so-much-more-than-a-coffee-table books.   Each one is given its own spot of honour on the shelf, with no hierarchy and no comment, so that you are invited to pick up any old book that looks compelling.  Although some sections are arranged vaguely chronologically or vaguely geographically, they are, on the whole, just there.  This does away with the intimidating aspect of art; you can be sure that all of the books deserve your attention just for their own sake, while not having to worry about whether it belongs to the right movement or circle or struggling to identify how it relates to the one next to it.  Each book stands alone, for you to be the judge of whether it’s for you or not.

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Another thing I like about this shop is that its definition of what constitutes an ‘art book’ is quite broad.  All the books are different in size, format, texture and layout, so alongside your standard coffee-table Rembrandt you can look at, for instance, Jason IMG_2014Godfrey’s large hardcover Bibliographic: 100 Classic Graphic Design Books or Caroline Tisdall’s fantastic book of photographs of Joseph Beuys’ performance art piece Coyote.  I, who have never knowingly paid a minute of attention to branding, found myself engrossed in a book about fonts and logos.  The upstairs room is particularly good for these books, which are not technically art books, but still artistic.  A table near the till includes political and artistic manifestos, books of poetry, odd bits of travel literature and, cryptically but not entirely surprisingly, Lewis Carroll’s The Jabberwocky.  There are also biographies, books about architecture, fashion and pop culture and even the work of a couple of particularly arty poets.  I saw a beautiful hardcover volume called 33 Poems by Robert Lax, an American poet I had never heard of in IMG_2010all my years of Poetry seminars, whose innovative use of parables and fables, prose poem aesthetics, disconcerting line structure and punctuation and unconventional typography are, I must agree, as artistic as they are poetic.  There was another interesting non-art book by an author whose name I’ve forgotten and can’t find anywhere on the supposedly-omniscient interwebs.  Regardless, it was another lovely hardcover called Cooking with Offal and – delightfully – I really couldn’t tell if it was a recipe book or poetry. Either way it’s something I don’t think I’d find in any other bookshop in London, and if it’s not in a London bookshop, for all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist.

Many of the books here are large hardcovers since that’s kind of the name of the IMG_2015game when it comes to art books.  These, unfortunately, can be quite pricey.  Thankfully, many of the books in the basement are significantly discounted, which means that instead of just quietly looking away from the book you know you’ll end up wanting, you can afford to actually pick it up and see.  The accessibility of the books in this shop means that you never have to be afraid to pick one up, flip through it, even lean against one of the shelves as you pore over every page.

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You’ll quickly discover that you’re actually very interested in things you never heard of, feel passionate about things you never even thought you’d like.  By focusing its efforts on producing a wide selection of interesting books, Koenig allows you to leave behind any preconceived ideas about what real art is and asks you to move beyond time frames, movements and that copy of an Impressionist painting in your dentist’s IMG_2008office, reminding us that none of the pretentious, gratuitously clever stuff matters as much as ‘But which one makes you feel something!?’  Koenig brings discovery and emotion into book-hunting, so that instead of sweating anxiously while you try to figure out if it’s Monet or Manet you’re supposed to like, you can take back the conversation as you – yes, you, not some curator, but you, who can’t even draw a stick figure – are given the power to investigate, choose and marvel.  Every time I go to Koenig Books I come out with a sense of awe at how many creative and innovative things there are in the world and at the unfathomable talent and originality of the people who make them.

Henry Pordes Books

               IMG_1801Henry Pordes Books, 58-60 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0BB

There was a time in my life when I went to this bookshop two or three times a week.  It made sense, really; it was on my way home.  Okay, it was one way home.  Okay, it was twenty minutes out of the way.  I called it the scenic route.

But Henry Pordes was worth the time I ‘wasted’ and the money I spent on it.  It IMG_1796was the first of the Charing Cross Road bookshops that I discovered when I first moved to London and so I think  I subconsciously compare every other shop I enter to this one.

Charing Cross Road is perhaps one of the most famous book-buying destinations in the world, thanks in large part to Helene Hanff’s brilliant novel about her post-war correspondance with Marks & Co., a bookshop that used to be at 84 Charing Cross Road.  If you haven’t read it, it’s a short epistolary novel that you can get through in a couple of hours and it’s definitely worth it.  I’d offer to lend you my IMG_1786copy, but tragically, I read the entire thing on a plane and then stupidly left it there.  But books never disappear.  No one, upon finding a stray book, would drop it in the bin; something about it wouldn’t let you.  You’d put it in a lost and found, or leave it behind somewhere where it would stay dry, or maybe donate it to a secondhand bookshop.  And if it were lucky, it would end up on Charing Cross Road.

Henry Pordes is busy at IMG_1800almost all times of day and its visitors include: 1. frazzled Arts & Humanities undergraduates, 2. awestruck American tourists, 3. antiquarian book dealers consulting on acquisitions or trying to sell their own books, 4. old men wearing tweed who head straight for the history section and 5. wanderers whose facial expressions indicate that they’ve never been here before and had no idea how good a decision they just made by walking in.

IMG_1799The shop’s front had been undergoing renovation for the past couple of weeks, but when I went yesterday its beautiful front window was once again visible from the street.  In this window are the books that trap you.  First editions of books of poetry, comics, art books, political commentaries, modern classics and not-so-modern classics are displayed proudly in the front window, and continue inside, covering the upper walls of the main room.  It doesn’t surprise me that the more valuable, antiquarian books are kept either high out of reach or behind glass.  I mean, it disappoints me of course, because just to touch them would be more than lowly English students dream of, but I get it.  Fortunately, they are still visible and give the shop an air of gravity; you feel that you’re in the presence of history, of genius and, essentially, of humanity’s greatest achievements.

IMG_1794On the ground floor, there is an entire corner whose three sides are covered with literary theory and literary biography.  I came here once while writing my dissertation on Ezra Pound and found, in this section, a book called Ezra Pound’s Chinese Friends. I thought it might end up being somehow relevant, and as it wasn’t very expensive I bought it.  It ended up being so useful that it became the central text in that dissertation.  It just goes to show that sometimes we humans don’t really know what we need, and if we were only ever to pursue the exact thing that we want, because we want it, right now, we would miss out on finding the things that we never knew we needed or, as a recent New Yorker article put it, ‘the book beside the book’ that you were looking for.  Also on this floor is a small room in the back full of history and political books, a shelf of big,  hardcover children’s classics and an admirably well-stocked collection of art books.  There was a beautiful hardcover book of full colour paintings by Modigliani that was £16 – much cheaper than the retail price – but still to expensive for me.  What I did buy in the end came from the basement.

IMG_1792Downstairs are the travel, more art, psychology, fiction, poetry and drama sections, as the map of the shop at the top of the stairs indicates.  Yes, there’s a map of this bookshop.  I think there’s something so romantic about the idea that a visitor might need a map to keep him/herself from getting lost in the basement and never coming out.  In the fiction section, I bought a copy of Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence for only £4.  I have read the book before but realised lately that I don’t have a copy and might soon be in a position where I need one so I wanted to invest.  It’s always difficult buying a copy of a book you’ve already read.  You have to weigh up your options and decide whether to go for a cheap copy (you have already read it, so aesthetics shouldn’t be that big a deal the second time round) or spring for a more expensive copy (this is a book you’re going to read twice; surely you want a copy worth a second go-around, right?).  I settled for something in the middle, with a solid, sturdy Penguin classics edition at a third of the retail price.  I also bought a hardcover copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad for £3.50, which is about about a fifth of retail price.

Other highlights of this basement are the bay full of Folio Society editions of IMG_1788classic novels.  As anyone who regularly follows this blog is already aware, I adore the Folio Society.  Their recent tube adverts which read ‘Re-kindle your love of beautiful books’ are delightfully sassy.  And with a whole shelf of these gorgeous editions stretching from floor to ceiling, I feel that I could be perfectly happy without ever leaving this room.

One of the volume’s in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is called Books do Furnish a Room and I think the man is onto something with this statement.  Although many of my arguments against ‘e-books’ are more intellectual and political than ‘But books are pretty!’, sometimes that’s the one that resonates with people most.  And it is the argument that the shelves of Henry Pordes quietly put forwards themselves.  The way we buy books is different from the way we buy any other commodity, whether it’s food or clothes or…what else do normal people spend their money on?   We buy books not only for ourselves, but to put them against the other books we have, in the hopes that our shelves will say something about who we are as people.  We buy them not only for ourselves, but also for the friends who’ll borrow them, the family members who’ll steal and probably never return them, the children who’ll inherit them and the strangers who’ll find them in the basement of a bookshop one day.

IMG_1795The sight of straight lines of books, standing proudly spine to spine, row upon row like soldiers, resolute in the battle against their obsolescence, warm a bibliophile’s heart.  More than any list on a screen, these rows of books remind us not only of the books we’ve read and through them the things we’ve learned and the journeys we’ve taken, but also of the many books we haven’t read.  They are the ones we want to read, the ones sitting on our shelves waiting and burning with the need for recognition in the backs of our minds.  They speak to the ingenuity and creativity of all those writers who came before us and all those readers who treasured their books as long as they lived, until those hallowed volumes ended up here.  In a way, Charing Cross Road is book-heaven.

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The Bookshops of Cecil Court

Cecil Court, London, WC2N 4EZ

Charing Cross Road is one of my favourite places in London, because it’s dotted with every kind of bookshop you can imagine selling new and secondhand books, art books, antique and rare books and every kind of classic.  The shops are varied, each with its own speciality and its own atmosphere and I love them all (including Any Amount of Books).  The road is also surrounded by bustling places like Leicester Square, Soho and China Town.

If we imagine Charing Cross Road as the popular, beautiful,  class-president kid, then Cecil Court is its quiet, brainy and arty younger sibling.  Being friends with that kid in high school wasn’t going to make you polpular, but it would probably get you into some unique situations.  This quiet, pedestrian street runs eastward from Charing Cross Road and hits St. Martin’s Lane.  Stumbling upon it one day –  trying to find a short-cut to Covent Garden that avoided the crowds – was a wonderful surprise.  I noticed the first bookshop with its wooden sign and Victorian store front  advertising Rare and Antiquarian Books and felt the usual flutter of delight that a bookshop causes.  I walked over to peer in the window at the books on display and, as soon as I had arrived in front of the shop, the one next to it caught my eye.  A beautiful display of children’s books was in the next window.  I walked over to it, only to be distracted by Watkin’s books on the other side of the road,a beautiful old bookshop which specialises in New Age and Occult books.  This experience repeated itself about twelve times.  In a rolling wave of pleasure, I realised that both sides of the street were lined with bookshops.

Storey’s specialises in antique maps and prints, Marchpane’s window is filled with a beautiful display of children’s books, including a first edition hardcover copy of Matilda.  David Drummond’s Pleasures of the Past is packed with memorabilia from years past and Goldsboro Books and Peter Ellis Books sell first editions of modern classics.   In one of these windows (it gets a bit difficult to differentiate between them, I’ll be honest), I eyed up a first edition copy of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love with envy.

Cecil Court, even on a rainy afternoon, is a street that invites browsers, curious minds, wanderers (aimless or otherwise), adventurers and people of all kinds, whether they’re shoppers or window-shoppers.  In the middle of London, surrounded by buses and car horns, Cecil Court and its beautiful bookshops are  an adventure of the quieter, more civilised kind.

Week 2: Any Amount of Books

Any Amount of Books, 56 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0QA

Walking up Charing Cross Road, coming from Trafalgar Square, Any Amount of Books is the first of many second hand and independent bookshops on the road.  On a sunny day in London when I haven’t got much to do, I love to stroll along Charing Cross Road from Trafalgar Square up to the flagship Foyles near Tottenham Court Road, popping in and out of the long line of shops.  Each one has its own style, its own atmosphere and sometimes its own speciality.  But in my mind, this bookshop is special because from the bargain books outside to the crowded wooden shelves to the eccentric staff, this is the quintessential London bookshop.

Of course, this means that it is probably not ideal for a species of human that, though I don’t associate with any, does exist among us.  If you are a sad, goal-oriented little person whose only experience of book-hunting is writing down the name, author and ISBN number of the book you need and staying in a  shop for only as long as it takes to determine if it’s there or not, you’re not going to like this place.  The layout seems to change quite frequently, the alphabetisation is a bit dodgy and no one seems to notice or care that you’re looking a little bit lost.  No, this is not the place for a quick and effortless find.  But if you have just the tiniest modicum of patience, you’ll see that in the process of looking for one specific book, you’ll find about twelve other, weirder, and completely unexpected ones.  This is the joy of the organised chaos that is the basement of this shop.

Today I went in looking for Faulkner’s Light in August and, though it wasn’t in either of the Fiction A-Z sections (yes, there are two; we don’t ask, we just go with it), I managed to find a very strange little book indeed which, though it’s not what I wanted, is something of a hidden gem.  It’s black with silver writing and it’s called A Writer’s Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham.  My first thought was that it was some kind of lesser novel, or maybe a biography…it’s filled with little chunks of text separated by asterisks so I was quite puzzled. Upon inspection of this mysterious little book, I found out that it is, in fact, what it says it is (allowing us to rethink the maxim “Don’t judge a book by its cover”); it’s Maugham’s collection of the interesting bits from his personal notebooks over the years.  What finally convinced me to buy it was finding two things tucked inside: the old train ticket of someone who travelled from London to Brighton on July 17th of an unspecified year and a bookmark from Waterstone’s in the days when there were only 5 Waterstone’s locations in London.  Quite a strange find but very interesting and only £4.  Not bad for a hardback 349 page book these days, eh?

I checked out the poetry shelf and the children’s books section (where there are many more beautiful hard cover books, including older ones with brilliant colour illustrations throughout) before heading up the stairs.  On my way up, I could hear people talking upstairs and that’s when I remembered one of the most wonderful things about this shop: the hilarious staff.  They sit behind the desk clucking away to each other, oblivious.  I once heard one of them in the back room yelling at his ex-wife (I gather) on the phone while a room of customers awkwardly pretended not to hear and another one of them, an older gentleman, has the most absurd laugh I think I’ve ever heard in my life.

Do go visit them.