London for Bookworms
Los Angeles Times
My geeky UK teenage years were filled with escapes to London’s multi-volumed bookstore scene. Most weekends were spent leaning against bookcases, stand-up-reading everything from Russian short stories to steam train picture books. I was certainly a nerd – but not in today’s hipster-cool way.
Revisiting recently, I cracked open the cover on the city’s bookshops, fearful that the age of evil e-readers would have killed all my favorite haunts.
First-up: Foyles on Charing Cross Road.
Flagship of a six-branch mini-chain, this shiny, multi-floored shop opened in June, relocating from just along the street. With more books than you can shake a Kindle at, there’s also a cafe, small art gallery and a full calendar of readings in a purpose-built auditorium.
This bells-and-whistles approach is all about community-building, to borrow a digital-age term. But while brimming with shoppers on my visit, I soon felt nostalgic for the modest, musty-smelling enclaves I once frequented. And while Charing Cross Road was formerly the heartland of these, few remain.
Nearby, the green-painted bargain boxes outside Any of Amount of Books are honey traps to passing pedestrians. But bookstore browsing is about burrowing into the stacks, so I’m soon creaking downstairs inside to survey the used volumes on its floor-to-ceiling shelves.
My approach hasn’t changed: read the pricey tomes in situ but don’t pay more than a few bucks for takeouts. I flick through some alluring art books before finding – for £2 – an intriguing history of London gin. I later spot the same title selling new for £14 in another shop.
Several doors along, I’m lured by the hardback-lined window displays at Quinto, combining vintage volumes upstairs – including old London souvenir books – with a subterranean higgle-piggle of dog-eared bargains. My £2 find here is an obscure birding tome for my ornithologically-minded girlfriend back home.
But it’s not all about penny-pinching secondhand shopping. Hopping the Underground to Holborn, I’m soon nosing around Bloomsbury’s London Review Bookshop, a handsome independent store run by a top UK literary magazine.
Sidestepping the elbow-patched regulars and newly-published books, I’m here for alternative sustenance. The store’s onsite cafe serves trendy teas, bulging baguette sandwiches and the kind of desserts – treacle tarts, chocolate cakes – that suggest twinkle-eyed grandmothers baking their favorite treats.
I plump for quiche – plus a thick slice of jammy Victoria sponge. It’s just what Hemmingway would have ordered if he were here. Probably.
Back on the Underground, I head for Skoob Books (geddit?), today’s final destination. Deploying directions from its website – “head through Waitrose [supermarket], admire the cheese, exit and turn left“ – I’m soon descending to a bookworms’ Aladdin’s cave.
Every surface – including a piano – is slathered with books. There are six shelves of vintage Penguin crime paperbacks, while a wall of juicy travel titles inspires fevered examination. Mindful of my airline’s weight restrictions, I limit myself to looking – for almost two hours.
Next afternoon, I plot three final chapters – including one that isn’t even a store.
Starting in affluent Chelsea, I find John Sandoe, a welcoming, triple-fronted bookshop that’s been selling new books since 1957. Staffed by plummy-accented locals, its black-painted floors creak under the weight of a large but carefully-curated collection.
I spend ages stroking their pricey photography volumes – e-books will never trigger the same physical lust – but since none meet my £2 maximum I return to the Tube empty-handed. It’s time for a break from shopping.
When the gargantuan British Library – recipient of every publication produced in the UK – opened its Euston Road headquarters in 1998, it became a pilgrimage destination for bibliophiles. But its little-known behind-the-scenes tours are the best way to slip between the covers.
Joining a small group and a friendly guide, we examine the conveyor-belt system that delivers items from its 14 floors (five below ground); gaze across silent readers from a lofty viewing balcony; and salivate outside George III’s glass-encased private library, home to hundreds of precious volumes.
But the building’s greatest hits line its Sir John Ritblat Gallery, where shaded display cases house jaw-dropping treasures including Shakespeare’s First Folio, a Gutenberg Bible and a handwritten Alice in Wonderland.
Perhaps just as historic, my final stop is Hatchards on Piccadilly. Opened in 1797, it’s London’s oldest bookstore.
Entering beneath a huge Royal Warrant coat of arms – Hatchards is the Queen’s chosen bookshop – I find five floors of new volumes encircling a central staircase. The wood-paneled walls are also studded with photos of book-signings past, from Bette Davis to Salmon Rushdie.
After some intense perusing, I make my final purchase. Mark Forsyth’s The Unknown Unknown is an entertaining, pamphlet-style volume praising bookstore browsing over soulless internet shopping. “A bookshop,” he writes, “is a room where you find what you never knew you wanted, where your desires can be perpetually expanded.”
Turning its pages back on the Tube – alongside passengers hunkered over flickering digital screens – it’s easy to agree. In fact, I’m already wondering how many extra books I can wedge into my aircraft carry-on.
If you go:
Foyles: 107 Charing Cross Road (www.foyles.co.uk)
Any Amount of Books: 56 Charing Cross Road (www.anyamountofbooks.com)
Quinto Bookshop: 72 Charing Cross Road (www.quintobookshop.co.uk)
London Review Bookshop: 14 Bury Place (www.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk)
Skoob Books: 66 The Brunswick (www.skoob.com)
John Sandoe: 10 Blacklands Terrace (www.johnsandoe.com)
British Library: 96 Euston Road (www.bl.uk)
Hatchards: 187 Piccadilly (www.hatchards.co.uk)