Visiting the bookshops of London (part 1 of 8)

Introduction

At the end of February I had a week off work. I had hoped to go away for my first overseas holiday in 5 years and second since 2000. Unfortunately, due to a monumental cock up from Nationwide (who I will no longer be using) this wasn’t possible, but I still had the time booked off. I couldn’t really cancel it as our HR policy says that we have to use any and all roll over from the previous year has to be used by the end of March, so if I didn’t take the time off I’d lose my entitlement.

I wanted to try to do something a bit nice and a bit different from normal, so I decided to go on a pilgrimage. Only I wasn’t trying to visit and relics or holy places – I don’t buy into that pagan nonsense. This is pilgrimage in terms of merely visiting lots of places you want to go. I know a fair few bookshops in London but there are many that are highly spoken of that I’ve never been to. I had a look around and made a list, adding to it as I received recommendations.

When looking around a bookshop, there are all sorts of things to take in and consider. Some shops have that “old book” smell to them, some have wonky floors, some specialise in certain types of books. Almost any bookshop will have a lot of fiction available, but it’s in the quality of the non-fiction that a good bookshop can be discerned. So everywhere I went I made a point of looking out for what was on offer in my twin loves of science and christianity. I made it my aim to buy a book from each one I visited with a goal of trying to make it a book that would typify that shop or that you could only buy there. Ultimately, it was my prerogative, so I admit I sort of broke this on a couple of occasions when I spotted something that just jumped out at me.

I ought to point out that I am far from original here. I had planned on doing a write up of each but before I started to do so, somebody pointed me to The Matilda Project. There is some overlap in the bookshops covered and her descriptions are far more thorough and pleasant to read than mine, even though our opinions of some of the shops do differ greatly.

  1. Bookmarks

I began in Bloomsbury, at one of the more left field bookshops. Or maybe that should be left wing. Bookmarks is dedicated to all things Marxist and the fight for equality. As you walk in there are copies of the Socialist Worker for sale on your right. On almost every shelf is a small bust of Karl Marx. There was some slightly dreary jazz playing on the Friday night I was there. It was sparsely populated and the chap who I presume was the proprietor was sat unobtrusively behind a desk, with various revolutionary posters adorning the space behind him.

I was struck by the existence of a children’s section towards the back of the store. I regret not having taken a closer look to see what sort of things were available for 10 year old would-be communists. While Marx was the main focus, there was a more antiquarian section where one could seemingly buy anything and everything that Lenin ever wrote. There were also shelves entitled women’s right and black struggle. The bookshop seems to have its own publishing arm and these had their own shelf, but some were also scattered elsewhere.

You’d be unlikely to find anything by Hayek or Friedman here, but I would take a guess that they get a few mentions in some of the anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal volumes that populated the economics section.

If you’re used to the likes of Waterstones or opening up Amazon packages, then I would recommend this as somewhere to go for a slightly different experience.

Book purchased: Breaking Their Chains: Mary Macarthur and the Chainmakers’ Strike of 1910 by Tony Barnsley.

  1. Book Warehouse

This is a chain store with a few outlets scattered around. The particular one I went to is just by Russell Square and is the HQ for the business. It has a fair bit of crap there of little interest, but what it is really good for is grabbing a bargain. If they’ve got it in stock then the chances are that it’ll be cheaper here than any other shop you can go to.

A lot of what they have in stock are from Wordsworth, either in the Wordsworth Classics imprint or Wordsworth Editions. These books tend have fairly poor binding which is why they get sold off so cheaply, but if you don’t mind a book falling apart after the first reading then this is ideal. As might be inferred from this, the real strengths of the bookshop are in fiction, with some specific areas of non-fiction. Unfortunately, they don’t have a strong offering in the sciences and what passes for christianity is rather risible.

Book purchased: A Wordsworth Editions abridgement of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

  1. Quinto

Quinto is one of the many bookshops that can be found down the Charing Cross Road. It specialises in second hand and antiquarian books. They all look incredibly expensive, but appearances can be deceptive. You can browse around in the front of the shop, but as with many of the bookshops in the area this area is rather small and one can feel quite exposed. Thankfully, there’s a very helpful sign that points to a back door and reads something like “[There are plenty more books this way]”. As you follow the sign you are led down some wonky stairs with a thin railing and another sign saying that the railing wasn’t secure so it best not to put your weight on it.

The downstairs area isn’t huge nor was it was terribly well stocked when I was there. But what is there is fantastic. You have to look very carefully at the binding to work out what books it is that you may have picked up, but each one was a gem. Maybe one of the reasons the shelves weren’t well stocked was the fact that there was one chap going round taking them off and ending up with a great pile in his arms. He looked a little comedic as he had to arch his back backwards, but I sort of envied what enjoyment and learning he would be able to take from the horde that he carried.

I’ll definitely be back here, if only to find things that are long out of print and to ensure that someone else can receive the wisdom from the past.

Book purchased: A 1927 edition of Robert Owen’s A New View of Society & Other Writings.

  1. Book Mongers

Situated in the heart of Brixton, Book Mongers is a treasure trove of the second hand. It’s most notable feature is the resident dog who was sat by the window as I came in. He was friendly enough but unobtrusive. He had a little sniff of my hand as I tried to work out the theme of the bookshelf on the left as I walked in, which was a curious mix of gardening, science and travel writing. The place is piled up high with books of all sorts in a gloriously mess that lies someway between semi-organised and disorganised. There was some lively jazz playing on the Saturday morning I visited.

The owner was sort of cordoned off by a wall of books that separated him from the rest of the shop. Yet the way the place was laid out, one had all sorts of little tunnels or nooks to go down which made the best of the way the shop was laid out. At the back of the place there was a shabby looking sofa, from which the most easily reached books were old law textbooks. Someone came in offering a load of medical textbooks while I was there, but they were being donated rather than sold, as the owner was keen to take the address of the donor “for tax reasons”.

I definitely plan to come back here in the future. I just don’t know what great works I may find in the quaint chaos.

Book purchased: The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer.


Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at Beautiful Books, The Kennington Bookshop, Foyles and Daunt Books.

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