Visiting the bookshops of London (part 2 of 8)

Link to part 1

  1. Beautiful Books

Not far from Book Mongers (see part 1), within the arches of the railway bridge is Beautiful Books, a christian bookshop that seems unusually tidy compared to the shanty food stalls and chaos of the market around it. It’s a christian bookshop of the classical twee kind with a few platitudinous posters on the walls and lots more for sale. It’s the kind that I recall we used to have in Dunstable, next to the more austere baptist church (ours was the more laid back of the two baptist churches in the town centre, but we didn’t have a bookshop).

The books were all along one wall and, at a rough count, seemed to be 1/4 bibles and 1/4 bible reading guides. There was also some apologetics, quite a few biographies of missionaries (though no doubt some of these might be referred to as hagiographies) and some odd bobbins. Being reasonably familiar with the world of christian writing, one can look out for various tell-tale signs to inform you as to the kind of thought that the owners might have by looking at the topics and the authors on display. There was quite a lot of T.D. Jakes and David Pawson on display, along with almost the entire set of C.S. Lewis’ theological writings (no science fiction or Narnia here). I couldn’t spot a single book by a female author and there was very little that was written more than 70 years ago. There was also half a shelf on “creation/evolution” which was sadly only populated with anti-science writings.

With that kind of selection, it was going to be hard to find something I was likely to enjoy, but I did find something that had been on my wishlist for sometime, so I picked it up and took it to the counter. The proprietor was busy shuffling papers at the other end of the shop and it took a bit of rather English faux coughing to attract her attention. I was fearful that I couldn’t see a card reader and that I hadn’t enough cash in my wallet, but it was a relief that I could pay by card and so did, walking out not only with my purchase but also a rather curious newsletter entitled “Christ is Victor” containing short articles with the titles of “The Goodness And Beauty Of Jesus”, “Oil In The Vessel Of Your Life” and “The Hot Water Bottle”.

Book purchased: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.

  1. Kennington Bookshop

Kennington Bookshop won’t be around for long. I had a nice chat with the owner while I was there and she told me that the fixed overheads were too high and that they wouldn’t be renewing the lease once it is up at the end of May.

One of the curious features about this place was that most of the books that were displayed on the tables (not including those on the shelves) had elastic bands around them. It seemed a little odd, as though they were intended to stop people from flicking through the books. It turns out this wasn’t the case as the owner simply had no faith in the quality of modern binding and felt that the elastic bands would preserve them. I’m not convinced of the efficacy of this, but it was a quirky touch that rather endeared the place to me.

As with several of the bookshops I’d already visited in the weekend, there was some music playing in the background; this time it was Classic FM which rather fitted the slightly posh setting of Kennington as well the owner’s accent which wouldn’t have been out of place in the BBC in the 1950s. The shop was split on two floors, but unfortunately much of the downstairs hadn’t been priced so was labelled as “not for sale” which was a real pity as there were some great looking volumes in there. I also spied volume 2 of Michael Foot’s biography of Nye Bevan which would have been much more appealing if volume 1 had also been present.

The upstairs stock consisted of a mixture of new and 2nd hand, but was well presented and offered a reasonable choice of fiction though not a great amount of non fiction.

Book purchased: Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie.

  1. Foyles

I hadn’t planned on going to Foyles as part of my tour. I was aiming for the Southbank Book Market which the website says happens every day, come rain or shine. Sadly, the only evidence of it was an old, lonely sign on some railings overlooking the mudflats of the Thames. It seems the market is no more. So I wandered down the south bank for a bit and stumbled across an outlet of Foyles.

It is slightly odd and it is a grey area as to whether it is truly an independent bookshop. It has all the corporate trappings of Waterstones with a very similar character which is markedly different from many an independent retailer. I wouldn’t say Waterstones and Foyles are characterless, but they are two peas in a pod. They are both excellent if you know what you want, they are well laid out and you can find what you’re after with very little effort. And if it’s not in stock, it can easily be ordered.

[Late edit: Foyles have stated “To clear up your grey area, we ARE an indie: we’re still family-owned. (Indie has nothing to do with no. of shops.)” – I would dispute the latter part. I know of other businesses that are owned either by members of a family or individuals, but where the epithet of ‘independent’ would be most misleading, since in business, the term has connotations of small, single (or few) places of business.]

This particular branch was quite small compared to the flagship store but still had plenty there. I loved the selection of Very Short Introductions and the Great Ideas next to each other and could quite happily have emptied the shelf. There was also on display a series of 80 booklets that Penguin published and were selling for 80p each. However, these just seemed to be extracts of books, rather than works in their own rights.

Having noted that the store is quite generic, it seemed fitting to go for a relatively generic publishing label, which led me to Vintage. However, I still wanted to pick a book that I actually wanted to read.

Book purchased: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

  1. Daunt Books

When I started to research where to go on this little pilgrimage there was one name that appeared at the top of various lists over and over again. This automatically creates the risk that my expectations would be too high. As I walked in I wasn’t bowled over, but neither was I disappointed. It was just nice. There were quite a few people around but it wasn’t overcrowded.

The big selling point of the shop is its travel literature. Yet while it was interesting to see a bookshop organised by country, it was more than just travel writing; it was the literature of that country (all English translations). So there wasn’t, for example, a poetry section. If you wanted Shakespeare you’d go upstairs to the Great Britain section, if you wanted Ovid you would stay on the ground floor and see the Greek section. I was very tempted by The Tale of Genji in the Japanese section but it was in rather poor condition.

While I was happy to browse around, it didn’t feel like the kind of place I could spend all day in. That said, the whole place was just nice. I saw examples of the staff being very helpful, though the chap that served me at the checkout was a little bit surly.

Given the way the shop is organised, it only seemed right to go either for a piece of travel writing or at least a piece about a land that is foreign to me, by an author from that land but who writes with an evocative sense of place. There was quite a lot to choose from, but I eventually opted for a piece set on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – a place I doubt I will ever get to visit in my lifetime. One place I will probably go to again in my lifetime in Daunt Books.

Book purchased: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto


Tomorrow, we’ll head to The British Library, Housmans, Black Gull Books and Primrose Hill Books.

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