On London Bookshops
Mooching early through central London in the rain turns up several unwelcome surprises; the number of rough sleepers (they can’t sleep in Chinatown, where Westminster has allowed massive homeless spikes), the sheer volume of care-in-the-community babblers about, and the roads/buildings being demolished on such a vast scale that Soho has effectively been wiped off the map. Not very long ago each of its streets had a specific identity; artists, film, the rag trade, music and so on – all gone.
But there are plusses. There are far more bookshops left than one can ever visit in a day, with bargains to be found. The new collectors are Chinese buyers paying high prices. At the lower end, Charing Cross Road is not entirely devoid of bookshops by any means, although the legendary 84 Charing Cross Road is now a McDonalds, with its delivery bay used by drug dealers. McDonalds in general is synonymous with drugs, fights, drunks and litter, but is not curbed. In King’s Cross yesterday morning we were stepping over pools of blood outside London’s worst outlet. Why would anyone grant a 24-hour licence to a junk-food shop on one of the city’s busiest corners?
So I turn back to bookshops for solace; in the Wellcome and the British Library, smallish but well-stocked, the ones in Cecil Court, forever placing Harry Potter books in their windows to lure in tourists, the London Review Bookshop, with its home counties-ish cafe attached, Word on Water, the floating bookshop, and Skoob, with its cavernous stock of secondhand books, the antiquarian and remainder departments of Foyles, where bargains are to be found but few ever venture, the mad mix of the book market under Waterloo Bridge, the small but perfectly formed Libreria in Hanbury Street, the Riverside Bookshop at London Bridge, Artwords at Hackney and Shoreditch, the leather bound volumes of Camden Lock Books at Old Street Roundabout, the delightful Persephone Books in Lamb’s Conduit Street.
For me bookshops remain a mark of civilisation, calm places in a mad world. I miss Fantasy Inn and the small specialist bookshops where you could sit on the floor and read unnoticed. For Samuel Pepys books were one of the saddest losses from the Great Fire. Here he is with the bookseller of St Fayth’s Church;
‘He do believe there is above 150,000 l. of books burned; all the great booksellers almost undone; not only these but their warehouses at their Hall and under Christ-Church, all being burned. A great want thereof there will be of books, especially Latin books and foreign books; and among other, the Polyglottes and new Bible, which he believes will be presently worth 40 l. a piece.’
So the fire forced up the price of books by their scarcity – and I wonder if perhaps those Chinese collectors know something we don’t…