Thursday, December 1, 1994

The Bookshops of London

Written for Forbes-FYI in 1994

Only one city pats the reading man on the back and tells him he’s not crazy; only one holds the word sovereign over the image, esteems the well-said over the well-dressed, welcomes the foreign tongue as much as the local, the exotic foreign bloom alongside the hardy houseplant; can boast it was the home metropolis of infinite Shakespeare, of blind inglorious Milton, of our man Dickens, of Conrad, James, Eliot; only one, despite an inconvenient loss of Empire, remains the capital of our Mother Tongue, and if you can’t guess which one by now, better turn to the fashion feature and pray for rain, boyo, because babes still think men who read are sexy.

A busy man in London with an hour to spare and a few knicker (Brit. slang = ready money) in his pocket can, with the help of the strategem which follows, make a fair sally at some of the world’s best bookshops. And should gout, age, inertia, or an expedition to remote bargain-basement corners of the globe stay you from reaching Piccadilly Circus or Berkeley Square, you may also frequent most of these shops (which nearly all issue catalogues) by mail or fax.

MARCHPANE (16 Cecil Court, tel. 71-836-8661, fax 497-0567) You don’t have to have children to love this shop, but it helps if you were a kid once. Dealing exclusively in children’s and illustrated books, often in 19th and 20th century first editions, their window alone is nostalgia enough to warm an old soldier’s heart: thunder-and-lightning plasma lamp, Daleks from Doctor Who, Dan Dare’s Rocket Gun ("the safety model"—if they’d only guessed what was coming); also the Nuclear Merit Space Pilot Missile Gun complete with Two Safety Missiles featuring Secret Message Chambers, Solar Compass, Interplanetary Selector, & Velocity Control. Did I say this was a bookstore? The first edition of Alice In Wonderland, from 1866, will set you back about $4,000, but illustrated versions of the store’s favorite book can be had for a few dollars, as can original Arthur Rackham fairy-tale or E. H. Shepard Winnie-the-Pooh prints from the ’20s. Try tracing the history of boys aloft, from various editions of Peter Pan through The Great Airship (1914) to Baffling the Air Bandits (’30s) to The Boy’s Book of Jets (’50s).

BELL, BOOK & RADMALL (4 Cecil Court, 71-240-2161, fax 379-1062) is for many the modern literature first-edition bookshop of choice; fairly priced, low-key, unstuffy, yet with only top-quality copies. (A first edition is the first appearance of a book, before it gets reprinted.) Want an original of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), a distinguished blue volume with gold lettering above a London street scene? Or Brave New World (1932), with its art-deco dust jacket of oscillating halos of blue and white clouds around the globe as a blue-white airplane hovers above divided continents? Or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) with James Bond’s hand penciling in his coat-of arms? Happily, most of the shop’s 7,500 titles are in the $25-40 range, unlike the Niagara Falls of 20th c. literature, Joyce’s Ulysses, which might set you back about $8,000. (If they don’t have what you seek, try nearby Nigel Williams Books, downstairs at 22 Cecil Court, or Bertram Rota, 31 Long Acre, a few blocks away just by Covent Garden, tel. 71-836-0723, fax 497-9058).

MAGGS BROS. LTD. (50 Berkeley Sq., tel. 71-493-7160, fax 499-2007) An entire elegant house, three floors and a basement full of books, on one of London’s finest squares. A family business for nearly a century and a half, it will remind you that not all the good stuff is in museums yet. You might find on the ground floor, say, a print of Noël Coward by Max Beerbohm for $400; on the next floor, for $2,500, a full leaf from a 16th century Book of Hours, showing St. Apollonia, patron of dentists—or a similar volume complete for $33,000; or in the generous next room, a first edition of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (1837, issued serialized, in "parts"), for around $5,800, or of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884, first published in U.K., for copyright reasons), at $1,400. Got one of each already? Upstairs, try a complete set of Cook’s Voyages, or even better, the actual journal of the commander of HMS Beagle, from Darwin’s expedition—yes, the captain who suicided partway (1828) through the voyage; a museum should snap it up for $12,000. Still unconvinced? Try a 1533 document signed by Henry VIII for the same price, or a 1797 letter written left-handed by Lord Nelson soon after he lost his right arm. ($4,000). Good handwriting, too; intelligence always tells.

Among the many qualities H.R.H. Prince Charles and I have in common—and which mutual friends often remark upon—is a preference for HATCHARD’S (187 Piccadilly, tel. 71-439-9921, fax 494-1313 or 287-2638) as our bookshop for "new" (meaning not pre-read) books. Yes, we prefer to do the reading ourselves, the Prince and I. We rarely choose to meet at Hatchard’s, though it remains—by sheer loveliness, ease, and weight of tradition—the choice general shop, bookseller to the Queen as well, outranking Waterstone’s, W.H. Smith, Books Etc., and that antique den of disorganization, Foyle’s. It will soon be two hundred years old; Wilberforce signed the Abolition of Slavery Bill in the store. Five superb floors and a staff who know what they’re doing: if Barnes & Noble were thus, I could believe in a Heaven for writers.

HEYWOOD HILL (10 Curzon Street, tel. 71-629-0647) Founded in 1936, the refined man’s ultimate neighborhood bookshop if you happen to live in Mayfair. Though not comparable to Hatchard’s in terms of quantity, a small pleasant place to while away a literary hour, crammed full of old and new surprises. Nancy Mitford worked here during the war; numerous celebrated loyalists since its inception make it a classic, and a model for what such a bookshop should be.

SOTHERAN’S (2 Sackville Street, tel. 71-439-6151, fax 434-2019), just off Piccadilly, established in London since 1815, has hands-down the most beautiful bookstore interior in the city. To call it a general antiquarian shop doesn’t do justice to the range, prestige, and imagination of its selection. You are as likely to find, say, a copy of Kipling owned by Wodehouse as a letter from Christopher Wren; a signed Samuel Beckett as a Piranesi print; a first edition of Sir Richard Burton’s Middle East travels as Hunter Thompson’s Las Vegas ones. Small wonder that this national treasure purchased Laurence Sterne’s and Charles Dickens’ personal libraries. Entire departments devoted to literature, architecture, natural history, naval & military history, travel, art, children’s, prints, theater, autograph letters, and all attendant bric-a-brac. Only a pleasure.

ULYSSES (40 Museum St., Bloomsbury, tel. & fax 71-831-1600) With its British Museum location, and a truly unmatched selection, this large 20th century first-edition shop is able to charge highly inflated prices—sometimes twice what you’d pay at the other fine first-edition shops in the city. There are, of course, book-buyers who feel reassured by buying from an exceedingly posh and somewhat standoffish shop. If price is really no object, call here first; otherwise try here last. The only deals, if you can call them that, are downstairs in the capacious basement.

DAVENPORT’S MAGIC SHOP (tel. 71-836-0408), hidden improbably in the subterranean shopping concourse of Charing Cross Railway Station, is more than a bookshop: the oldest family magic shop (since 1898) in the world. Among the multiplying rabbits and papier-maché lemons are volumes on Divination, Tarotmania, and Conjuring, masterpieces of mentalism, Houdini Research Diaries, and an astonishing array of juggling, classical gambling, ventriloquism, paper- and card-magic books. It’s also where the London Society of Magicians meets for regular lecture-demonstrations. "A wonderful illusion—a finger being cut in half. Have you seen it?" "Not for a week, old chap."

The finest travel bookshops are a bolo toss away from each other. R. & P. REMINGTON (18 Cecil Court, tel. 71-836-9771) don’t deal with new books, but rather with the alternative. Such as? Among the Matabele and Six Years in the Malay Jungle. Visits to Monasteries in the Levant. The Riddle of Hell’s Jungle is not about the same place as The Jungle in Sunlight and Shadow and neither involve Camp Fires in the Canadian Rockies. But on a bad day I feel I’ve spent Seventeen Years Among the Sea Dyak of Borneo. But never, thank God, as if on The Worst Journey In the World—a great book, by the way. THE TRAVELLER’S BOOKSHOP (25 Cecil Court, tel. 71-836-9132) has its antiquarian shelves, and a probably unmatched wall of old red Baedekers, and best of all, a basement of new travel chronicles, guidebooks, and maps that also functions as an ombudsman for the adventurous. A place to get your odder travel questions answered.

Also along Cecil Court are a number of other specialist shops that can be highly recommended. For dance, DANCE BOOKS (at #15, tel. 71-836-2314). For music, TRAVIS & EMERY (at #17, tel.71-240-2129). For theatrical prints, programs, posters, paraphernalia, try STAGE DOOR PRINTS (at #1, tel. 71-240-1683) or THE WITCH BALL (at #2, tel. 71-836-2922) or PLEASURES OF PAST TIMES (at #11, tel. 71-836-1142).

The used bookstores of the CHARING CROSS ROAD, starting at around the Leicester Square tube stop, make up a kind of Murder Mile for the secondhand-book addict. Their organization is only haphazard—for readers, not collectors. Though these few blocks aren’t as nourished with emporiums as five years ago, you can pass hours gazing at the pack-and-jam shelves: sometimes it is better to rummage hopefully than to arrive. QUINTO (at #48a) is less energetic than it was; HENRY PORDES (at #58), emphasizing the arts and literature, mostly used and choice remainders, has been good to me; THE CHARING CROSS ROAD BOOKSHOP (at #56) is the fishing boat with the largest net.

This stretch of road also includes SPORTSPAGES (at #94, tel. 71-240-9604, fax 836-0104), undoubtedly the finest sports bookstore in the UK, emphasis on what we call soccer and on what they call cricket. Of London’s many good art booksellers, SHIPLEY (at 70, tel. 71-836-4872, fax 379-4358) has broader interests and more depth than most.

Anyone after gardening books should, just near the Royal Gardens of Kew, seek out LLOYDS OF KEW (9 Mortlake Terrace, tel. 81-940-2512), a gorgeous, truly comprehensive shop. Call first; unusual hours.

MOTOR BOOKS (33 St. Martin’s Court, tel. 71-836-3800, fax 497-2539) has the best selection in Europe of new books and videos on motoring, railways, canals, aviation, army, and maritime. Really two linked stores, one devoted to Military, one to Transportation, there are shelves devoted to, say, Small Arms, the Great War, the Colonial Wars, the North American Wars, Afghanistan; illustrated books on insignia, medals, armor, and artillery. The other shop’s obsession is all cars, bicycles, motorcycles, with a whole room for railway spotters that includes, say, locomotive chassis model kits and books with titles like Steam Locomotives of the Baltimore & Ohio—An All-Time Roster. Also videos (Steaming East) so you don’t have to go anywhere; you can chug systematically around the world while lying abed and still drive everyone barmy with train timetables.


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