Somewhere in my house, there’s a leather-bound Latin copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, purchased in London 35 years ago with money I borrowed from a Bryn Mawr student who was disgusted to find I’d spent it on a book. I can’t remember why I borrowed money from her. I can’t remember where I bought the Ovid. I can’t remember Latin. But I do remember her disgust. It surprised me, because at the time—living a student’s life in London—I could think of no better use for a pound, even a girlfriend’s pound, than to spend it on a book.
Somehow a book bought in London was—and still is—different from a book bought anywhere else. Back then, I was a budding bibliophile, stuffed with the lore of making books. I pictured printer’s apprentices running from midnight garrets through the streets of 18th-century London with freshly scrawled sheets of foolscap ready to be set up in type—poems, essays, novels, the very works I had come to love as a student of English literature. I tried to imagine the late-17th-century coffeehouses that doubled as book and pamphlet shops. In the book-ridden aisles of one shop or another, I half expected to bump into the 19th-century essayist Charles Lamb on the lookout, as always, for what he called “a kind-hearted play-book.” To walk into a London bookshop—and whole streets seemed to be made up of nothing but bookshops—was not so much to go back in time. It was to stand in a place where the past casts up its riches like sea wrack on a tide-swept beach.
Many of the shops I knew in the mid 1970’s have vanished, and perhaps just as well, for some of them looked as though they were about to combust, dust and paper bursting spontaneously into flames and sending great inky gouts of smoke into the sky. Sadly, their deaths were more mundane than that. Some expired of natural causes, their flyblown windows finally emptied of their time-bleached stock. Many died in the Great Consolidation—a kind of financial virus that has swept over publishing and bookselling in the past three decades. Still more will die in whatever we decide to call this current economic crisis. Some of the victims vanished unmourned and unregretted. But others, such as the recently shuttered Murder One Bookshop—a beloved store that sold mysteries and crime novels on Charing Cross Road, the street that used to be the very heart of London bookselling but is now a slightly depressing remainder of itself—left behind grieving, dismayed customers.
These days, of course, you can get any book—every book—delivered with a few clicks on your computer, including the cheapest copy of the latest book. And yet at the same time books are steadily slipping behind an electronic curtain, becoming iBook apps or drab, Kindled, digital versions of what Lamb once called “biblia a-biblia”—books which are not books, mere intangible shadows of their old, visceral selves. The touch and smell of a book well-bound and well-printed on well-made paper feels more antique than ever, a sensory experience increasingly lost to time, like the scent of a spermaceti candle. Soon we’ll forget what a tactile pleasure reading really was.
Despite all that, London is still a wonderful city for the archaic pleasure of shopping for actual books in an actual shop. Is it too much to claim that the English understand the very shop-ness of a shop better than Americans do? You can find plenty of wide spaces, orderly shelving, and an inoffensive, supermarket blandness in the big London bookstores. But what I really crave in a good bookshop—and what London routinely delivers—is a touch of irregularity, a chaos that is partly disorder and partly the inner order of the proprietor’s mind. That, and the feeling that to be trapped in such a place—shuttered in by an ancestral, yellow coal-fog descending from the chimneys, the kind that hasn’t been seen since Prufrock days almost—would be something like paradise.
The reason we still go to good bookshops is also the reason we have a few friends over for dinner instead of inviting everyone. We like the selectness of select company, the likelihood of sharing common interests, the chance to make discoveries guided by minds and sensibilities we already trust. It’s not too much to say that in London you can almost go to a bookshop the way you would go to a pub, if you were a Londoner—seeking a sense of kinship and identity.
You can, of course, make your way to the grand emporia, the three-ring circuses of bookselling—Waterstone’s in Hampstead or Piccadilly or Kensington High Street or, better yet, Foyles on Charing Cross Road. There you’ll at least have the pleasure of seeing your favorite authors refitted in English jackets, which somehow has the effect of making them seem unread all over again.
The antitheses to these omnibus stores are the single-subject shops scattered around the metropolis where you can align yourself politically, sexually, geographically, graphically, and, of course, by genre and age group. Feeling charitable? Books for Amnesty International, in Hammersmith. Feeling socialist? Bookmarks, in Bloomsbury. Merely leftist? Housmans, in King’s Cross. Feeling footloose—ready to hit the road? Daunt Books, of course, on Marylebone High Street, which tantalizes the reader by shelving its books by latitude and longitude. Well, not quite. But that’s how it feels as you wander along the shelves, traveling from one corner of the globe to another.
To me, the ultimate test of a bookstore is how many books I end up buying despite myself. I’m no longer the money borrower or the Ovid buyer I once was. When you’ve bought as many books as I have over the years—and moved them from house to house to house—you find that every new purchase has to justify itself. Every shop was a temptation. Two did me in.
The first was the London Review Bookshop, just around the corner from the British Museum in a neighborhood that was once home to a number of eccentric specialty booksellers. In some respects, the London Review Bookshop is a perfectly ordinary place, nothing especially dazzling or quaint about it. It sells books. It likes books. But it’s the kind of bookstore where you can almost hear the books arguing with each other, some trying the persuasion of calm logic, others getting up on their hind legs and shouting. It’s a shop that’s selling ideas in book form, and there’s a surprising but welcome seriousness in its inventory—a solicitousness about your curiosity and your intelligence.
But my favorite shop is John Sandoe Books Ltd., just off King’s Road—a vivacious shopping district—in Chelsea. In a sense, John Sandoe Books Ltd. looks like it belongs somewhere else in London, though perhaps not any actual London. There’s something uplifting and phosphorescent about the place, its windows and staircases crammed with books, one genre fading into the next, the occasional sense that the shelving here has been done by free association. If the books at the London Review Bookshop belong to a debating society, the books at John Sandoe seem to belong to an extensive cousinage, a kinship of ink. It’s one of the few bookshops I’ve ever visited that made me feel I’d be happy reading any book on its shelves.
As I walked away from John Sandoe Books, shopping bag heavy in hand (Flann O’Brien at War and Vera Brittain to start with), I thought about the time I’d spent there. Since I became a writer—quite apart from my existence as a reader—I’ve developed a strange ambivalence about bookstores. I look at the piles and the crowded shelves and the specials and the staff favorites, and—some days—I wonder what it’s all for. Why write another book to add to the subdued melee of bookselling? Who buys all these books? Who has time to read them all? Other days, the same store seems rich with wonders, and I remember why I’ve been reading all my life.
John Sandoe Books Ltd. eased the ambivalence right out of me. It made me feel discerning and capacious as a reader. But it did something even stranger. It made me proud to be a writer. If I lived in London, I could have a bad day at work—sentences eroding, paragraphs falling apart, word after word evading my memory—and it would all be made better by a short walk among the titles at John Sandoe Books, where only a short walk is ever possible. The books would look up at me and smile, knowingly.
Verlyn Klinkenborg is the author, most recently, of Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile. He is at work on a book called Several Short Sentences About Writing.