Thumbing through first editions, rare volumes, and obscure political tracts, T+L finds there is no city for bibliophiles quite like London.
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.
Hazlitt’s Named for essayist William Hazlitt, the 30-room hotel has antique furnishings and a well-stocked library. 6 Frith St.; 44-20/7434-1771; hazlittshotel.co.uk; doubles from $350.
Bookmarks 1 Bloomsbury St.; 44-20/7637-1848; bookmarksbookshop.co.uk.
Books for Amnesty International 139B King St.; 44-20/8746-3172; amnesty.org.uk.
Daunt Books 83 Marylebone High St.; 44-20/7224-2295; dauntbooks.co.uk.
Foyles 113-119 Charing Cross Rd.; 44-20/7437-5660; foyles.co.uk.
Housmans 5 Caledonian Rd.; 44-20/7837-4473; housmans.com.
John Sandoe Books Ltd. 10 Blacklands Terrace; 44-20/7589-9473; johnsandoe.com.
London Review Bookshop 14 Bury Place; 44-20/7269-9030; lrbshop.co.uk.
Waterstone’s 203-206 Piccadilly; 44-20/7851-2400; waterstones.com.
Deceivingly large, this Marylebone bookshop has original Edwardian oak-paneled galleries filled with a huge selection of books. Skylights provide plenty of natural light for viewing books, and there is even more to see on the basement and mezzanine levels. Daunt Books is known for its extensive travel collection, which is segmented out by country and features everything from traditional travel guides to maps to food guides. The store also has a wide range of non-fiction, history, biographies, short stories, and poetry selections.
John Sandoe Books
Located near Sloane Square in Chelsea, this independent bookshop houses roughly 25,000 books in a three-story 18th-century building. The store was established by John Sandoe in 1957 and is now owned by the veteran staff. Behind a brown antique façade, the shop has carefully selected volumes packed into every nook and cranny, even spilling out onto the creaking spiral staircase. While there’s no apparent order to the titles, which range from cookbooks and children’s literature to poetry and travel volumes, the well-read staff can easily locate books, offer recommendations, and special order hard-to-find titles, even if they’re out of print.
Hazlitt’s, named after the essayist William Hazlitt, is housed inside a group of historic Georgian buildings dating back to 1718. This stylish, 30-room hotel is located in London’s Soho district, in the heart of Theatreland, and just a short distance from Oxford Street, Covent Garden, and the world-class shopping on Bond Street. Rooms and suites feature plush linens and antique furnishings, including mirrors, chandeliers, and artwork. Guests enjoy such amenities as a well-stocked library with a working fireplace, an honesty bar, and breakfast served in the guest rooms or the library.
Located near the Trades Union Congress and the British Museum, Bookmarks is London’s premier socialist bookshop. The inventory here is, no surprise, political and socialist in nature. The shop sells a number of titles focusing on Marx and Marxism, as well as books on labor history, Al-Qaeda, and Palestine. Bookmarks’ inventory of books is supported by a selection of DVDs, and a number of children’s books are available. Customers are treated to book signings, informative talks, and other special events throughout the year.
Books for Amnesty International
This Hammersmith bookshop was founded by the Hammersmith branch of Amnesty International, the internationally-recognized organization dedicated to protecting human rights, in 1993. The store is run by volunteers, and every book on its shelves is donated, resulting in a continually changing inventory. The majority of the stock leans toward the fiction, literature, and non-fiction ends of the spectrum, with a popular selection of biographies. Collectors can also browse the store’s selection of collectible books and records. Proceeds from the shop go to support Amnesty International’s charitable endeavors.
Located on Charing Cross Road, this London chain’s flagship store is the largest bookshop in the British Isles (or in Europe, for that matter). Established in 1906, the five-story behemoth houses an inventory of over 200,000 books, as well as an array of gift items, printed music, stationery, CDs and DVDs. The store is so large, it even houses a café and The Gallery, a separate area reserved for special events. Foyles hosts a number of its own special events throughout the year, including evenings with authors and panel discussions. The ground floor houses one of the United Kingdom’s most extensive inventories of children’s books.
Founded in 1945, Housmans was one of London’s first progressive bookstores. Today, it has become one of the few such stores remaining in the United Kingdom. The store, named after English author, playwright, and activist Laurence Housman, sells a selection of radical literature, including books, magazines, and pamphlets. Its selection of over 200 political newsletters and journals is the largest in the United Kingdom. The store also hosts a number of events each year, including book signings, film screenings, exhibitions, talks, and performances.
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.
Situated just off Piccadilly in the heart of London’s West End, Waterstone’s is an oversized bookshop with titles covering almost every subject imaginable. Opened in 1999, the store is an astonishing six stories tall and sells over 150,000 books. On the sixth floor, Waterstone’s houses an event space offering breathtaking city views. This space is frequently used for book signings and author talks, and past guests have included author Jasper Fforde, David Beckham, President Bill Clinton, and Sir Paul McCartney. The 5th View bar, located on the fifth floor, serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and cocktails.