Book Mooching In London
It’s my all-time favourite pastime, ingrained in me since I was about 5 years old. Book mooching involves wandering the London streets looking for secondhand bookshops, chatting to the people who sell books and spending too much money on them.
My childhood bedroom was filled with books salvaged from dustbins and borrowed from friends, books with missing pages, books found in the street, abandoned, unreadable, torn, scribbled on, unloved, unwanted and dismissed. It was the Battersea Dogs Home of books. Today I’m more discerning. I don’t want to learn about dentistry, rope-making, the Museum of Bricks or the Shropshire Evangelical Guild. At least one no longer finds the Condensed (ie. censored) books of the Reader’s Digest.
The habit of book mooching became more refined as I learned to pass by the turgid, unreadable and boring ones and concentrated on my own peculiarly esoteric interests.
Yesterday a prolonged rainstorm hit London, making it the perfect time for a book mooch. Setting off in Bloomsbury, then Farringdon, Holborn and the West End, then back up past the British Museum, I hit bookshops high-end and low, including a pop-up, a flagship and a market stall.
There are nowhere near as many secondhand bookshops as there once were, but Skoob in Bloomsbury now has two shops in the same neighbourhood, and the end-point always has to be Charing Cross Road, for the remnants of the book trade that still survive there, and the wondrous Foyles, which on its upper decks still resembles the mad old rambly Foyles of decades past.
It was a good haul; I came away with Caryl Brahms’ reimagining of Georges Feydeau, a cookery book about breakfasts of the world, a chronological play history of Alan Ayckbourn, the complete Jorge Luis Borges, a strangely annoying French novel, ‘The Madman’s Library’ – a guide to the world’s strangest manuscripts, and Victoria Wood’s biography. To these I could have added a first edition of Robert Bloch’s ‘Psycho’ for £4 – but would I have read it? I always felt that Bloch was a pedestrian talent who got lucky with Hitchcock.
Moving on to the kind of bookstores that still have high shelves and library steps I realised that I could not physically carry any more. I still get waves of weakness from having been ill, so decided not to push it. Mooching around London often calls to mind film sets. In elegant Fitzroy Square I was reminded of ‘Oliver!’ Although instead of booksellers owning houses here now you’re more likely to find a deposed dictator who has set aside his years of tying people to chairs and working on them with blowlamps to expand his property portfolio.
So this week I failed to win the CWA’s Best Short Story Dagger, and compensated by buying other people’s words.I popped into the British Museum’s exhibition on the Arctic and had cakes in the rain. It’s only possible to digest London one neighbourhood at a time – I’d love to do the same in New York when I have a few weeks to spare (hah!) but until then it’s the booklover’s London for me. And as much as I hate to quote myself, this bit from my memoir ‘Paperboy’ springs to mind.
‘I discovered a chain of fantastically seedy South London second-hand book stores called the Popular Book Centres. They stamped their smudged triangular logo inside all their books, and made enough money from thrusting, pointy-breasted top-shelf smut to keep racks of yellowing, soon-to-be-lost, dirt-cheap paperbacks going for real readers. In this way, they were every bit as useful as public libraries.
The Popular Book Centre in Greenwich was presided over by a gimlet-eyed man with black fingernails and the complexion of an old haddock. He looked as though he had been cast to play a lecherous plumber in a porn movie. I could always find something rare and wonderful lurking in the racks, and as everything was 1/6d I could afford to take a chance on the dodgiest-looking books.’
Sellers are more aware now, and in the current crisis we’ve lost paperback fairs, but there will always be book mooching.