Tag Archives: 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.