Bring Back The Bookstalls!
London is a strangely severe city. Our architects like trees in parks, not on pavements. We don’t do frills and fripperies (you only have to compare park benches in Paris and London to see the difference in styles) and seem drawn to barren open spaces. Paternoster Square at St Paul’s was named after the priests who chanted the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer as they walked behind the cathedral, but until WWII it was filled with bookstalls – as it had been since medieval times. The Blitz took care of that, and the square languished, ugly and unloved, for decades.
When Prince Charles intervened to soften the proposed plans for the square (which were astonishingly nasty by anyone’s standards) hands were thrown up in horror at the old buffer’s interference – but now the square seems to have attained a peculiar kind of grace. All it needs to complete it are the rows of bookstalls that adorned it for so many years. But a secondhand bookseller tells me that he is the last of his generation – there will be no more such stalls in decades to come, because the young don’t have the arcane habit of collecting old books. More disturbingly, they apparently don’t know what to do when they enter his shop. They stare at the spines, poke the odd book but they don’t take them down from the shelves, as if they were alien, untouchable objects!
And so we reach an end to the time when the city provided what its residents wanted – walk through the streets around the Bank of England now and you’ll find nothing except offices interspersed with the odd sandwich shop. If more was wanted, wouldn’t someone provide it? If a book market was truly needed, wouldn’t it appear? Apparently not.