The Southbank Centre Book Market
This was one of the first places I tried to visit. It’s located underneath Waterloo Bridge on the south side of the river. Or rather, it’s supposed to be. The only evidence of it was a lonely blue sign stuck to some railings. The website said that it happened every day come rain or shine, but it seems that this was out of date and that the book market is no more.
Situated at the end of a posh row of houses in Chelsea, Bookhaus was a strange one. There was a clear sign that said “Open” on the door and I could see someone inside. Yet the door was locked (note, this was around 2pm). Having a locked door and being open for business are mutually incompatible. I could have stayed and knocked on the window, but if they don’t have the good sense to be accessible then they don’t deserve to have any customers.
If a tourist were to ever stumble across 56a Infoshop by accident then they would be very very lost indeed. I had the independent bookshop map in my hand and still wasn’t able to find it after I aimed for it after leaving the Kennington Bookshop. I had to go back another day with an A-Z in hand in order to head down the back streets of Elephant & Castle.
When I did eventually find it, it was boarded up. There was some writing on the outside that mentioned the opening times of an organic food shop, but no sign of a bookshop.
Moving on from the radical, liberal 56a, one may find the Tabernacle Bookshop barely a quarter of a mile away as the crow flies. This is attached to the hugely impressive building that hosts the Metropolitan Tabernacle, the same church and building where Charles Spurgeon preached. Some months ago, I visited an FIEC church where an old friend of mine used to preach, though he and his family had since moved on. While there, I spoke to a chap about the same age as me who had been to the Tabernacle bookshop, describing it as behind a thick curtain, such that the pulling aside of it made one feel as though you were being let into an inner sanctum.
To get to the bookshop, there’s a little alleyway down the side of the church and you end up in a sort of side carpark. As soon as you go down there you get the impression that you should’t be here; almost as though its an industrial estate, private property. I passed a parking spot that had a little sign above it saying it was reserved for the minister.
Passing this, one gets to a sign marked “Tabernacle bookshop” which leads up to some steps to a plain door which was locked. There was a series of buzzers to the left hand side of the door, one of which was marked “bookshop” but as with BookHaus (c.f. above), if the door is locked, then the shop is not truly open for business. I was tempted to press the buzzer, if only to satisfy a sense of curiosity, but principles are principles and so I turned around and headed off.
The too expensive
One of the places I wanted to make sure I went to was Cecil Row, something of a Diagon Alley. It’s a short, pedestrianised road, just south of the Wyndham Theatre. There are a whole series of tiny places down here, most of which aren’t big enough to swing a cat in. The only one that is is a specialist in the occult, which I am happy to give a miss. I popped into one (I forget its name) of the other shops and had a look around. Many of the volumes were unknown to me, so I had a rather good time exploring the possibilities. That said, most of them held very little interest for me. Trying to find a point of reference, I picked up a copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. I’ve not read any of her works yet, though I do have a copy of The Black Knight in one of my ‘to read’ piles. Aware that The Sea, The Sea is one of her most famous works, I considered buying it. Only then I checked the price. This shop wanted £275 for it.
I was rather gobsmacked. I put it back on the shelf and tried a few random books. The cheapest I could find was £50. It seems that this was not so much a bookshop full of books that were meant to be read, but rather of books that were meant to be owned. Specifically, signed first editions. Though familiar with the laws of supply and demand from my economics and accountancy qualifications, I remain sceptical about their absolute use in valuing scarcity. For while such books may be rare, the idea that having a signature in the front inherently adds value is a nonsensical idea. The work of labour to write just about any book would take months (there are exceptions, as I know Farenheit 451 was written in just a few days) yet the scribbling of an autograph takes only seconds.
I know that I could easily have walked a couple of hundred yards up the road to Foyles and got myself a copy of The Sea, The Sea for probably little more than £10. Can it really be that the addition of a squiggle of ink adds £265 to its intrinsic value? It offends me that I live in an economy where some would answer that question in the affirmative.
I had made it my aim to buy a book in each shop I visited, but here I realised that that aim could not reasonably be met. Though I buy books faster than I read them, I am not merely a hoarder. I live in a season when I am blessed with the ability to buy what I intend to read yet I don’t know how long this season will last. I’ve been made unemployed before and in today’s world there is no such thing as job security. So if I am ever made redundant or my circumstances otherwise change, I will have a ready supply of things to read while I continue to look for alternative jobs.
Notables not visited
This is my local bookshop. For some reason the London Bookshop Map has this marked as a 2nd hand bookshop, but this is misleading. It is almost entirely new books, but some of them may have been in the shop for a little while. It’s wonderfully disorganised with piles of books all over the place. The religion section is not as good as it used to be, possibly because I bought quite a chunk of it and they simply haven’t been replaced. The philosophy section is probably the best, and science is also very strong here. Don’t come if you are looking for a specific title, but do come to browse and find something delightful.
Not terribly far away is Rye Books. Named after the nearby Peckham Rye, this is a very small bookshop with not many books at all. They also run regular events within the shop so while there isn’t much to see upon browsing, it is often impossible to browse. The last time I went there to look around, they were doing a children’s reading party. This is very good for the children but it renders the shop unusable for everyone else. What is in their favour is that if you know precisely what book you want, you can order it and they have a next day delivery service.
This regularly gets listed as one of the best local bookshops in London. The name is slightly misleading as it’s actually closer to Norwood than Dulwich. And it remains a mystery to me as to why it is afforded such accolades. It is a moderate bookshop, but I’ve never experienced anything there that really wows me. It’s very similar to The Bookseller Crow, in that it has a reasonable selection of fiction, some regular in-shop events but is very weak on non-fiction.
This is the sister shop to Dulwich books. Though unlike Dulwich Books, it’s actually in Dulwich. There are two floors to it, neither of which has a large range of books, but it has a certain charm to it. It’s another one that seems indicative of the mindset that “reading = fiction” so while it is good in one genre, it lacks the breadth that would make it a truly great bookshop.
This is the oldest bookshop in London and I have to say, one of my favourites. Situated on multiple floors, with some narrow corridors meaning you have to squeeze past the other shoppers, yet without it being so cramped that you can’t move, it has a layout akin to a rabbit warren. This is one of the finest bookshops of all, as you can come here either for something you’re looking for or just have a browse. The science section is downstairs and is very well stocked, as is the religion section at the end of the same quasi-corridor. The philosophy section in between the two is also loaded with many enticing volumes. I could spend all day there and not get a chance to go upstairs.
There are many Waterstones branches around the place, which are all much of a muchness. Their flagship store, though, remains the one Piccadilly, just a few doors down from Hatchards (which is now owned by Waterstones). The corporate professionalism that is evident to all is, to some, a means by which all character is drained. I would disagree with that. It may not have the quirky charm of the more ramshackle shops but it has an open, fresh feel that is most welcoming and one could spend many an hour here. In fact, I have on more than one occasion.