- John Sandoe Books Ltd
Continuing my adventure in Chelsea, I made my way to John Sandoe. Pretty much in the heart of Chelsea, it’s housed in what appears a slightly wonky building; one where the beams are visible but where no two of them are quite parallel with one another and where any single beam is not truly straight.
As you walk in, you find the floor is also a bit higgledy piggledy. There’s no obvious place to go so I just headed for the nearest shelf and had a look at what was in front of my face. There was no clear order to the books on display. They weren’t grouped by fiction/non-fiction or any subcategory thereof. They were just there. So you had to look quite carefully to see what might take your fancy. As I explored a bit I did eventually discern that there were patches around the shop where the books were grouped by publisher. So I found a whole load of Persephone books (see earlier), a wonderful array of Very Short Introductions and a bunch of P.G. Wodehouse stories.
It all had a delightful charm to it. It wasn’t shambolic in its organisation as I had found with Bookmongers and Skoob, but neither was it so neatly laid out that you could find what you are looking for with minimal thought; the opportunity for adventure and accidental discovery is a permanent presence at John Sandoe.
I didn’t think the shop was terribly large, though I had been intrigued by a few very narrow staircases, yet they seemed so narrow as to be slightly foreboding. I hadn’t seen anyone go up or down them so I thought it might lead to an office or a personal dwelling. It wasn’t until someone came in, asked for the children’s section and were directed downstairs that I realised that there was more to the shop. So I ventured upstairs and found a great wealth of books which I could spend many an hour perusing. But I have to tell you about the genius shelving. While there were fixed shelves, they had an attachment to the front that allowed for sliding panels, each panel being a shelf in itself, so they were able to stack books three level deep, but you could just slide one panel out of the way to get to the one behind, so it was non-obstructive and an utter delight. While up here I found was may have passed for the religion section, though it had plenty of other bits mixed in. I was very tempted by Strange Glory, the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh. Though it just didn’t quite seem right for this bookshop. Being in Chelsea, I wanted to get something that had a certain air of poshness to it. So I had a quick look on Wikipedia to see a list of stories by an author I have long been implored to read and see what was the first full novel in their most famous series.
Book purchased: Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
- Any Amount of Books
Returning to the Charing Cross Road, I wanted to see a couple more of the one-off shops that I didn’t get a chance to go into before. Walking into Any Amount of Books, I was immediately caught by the Hardy novels that were just at eye level on the right hand side as I walked in. I think they had just about every published work there, including the few that I haven’t read. These were sat amongst some very good value 2nd hand books, reasonably well laid out. For a very small inside shop area, there were quite a few people there when I visited. So there was a bit of jostling about to get position to look at the shelf you wanted; it’s a game I wasn’t too good at and had to pretend to look at some shelves when I wasn’t interested in them, just while I waited for someone to move.
The christianity books were listed under “Myths/Legends” which didn’t impress me much. Though it may have appealed to one other shopper who came in asking about books on angels. Eavesdropping the conversation with the staff a little, I gathered that such books are quite popular, though it was not specified what religion, tradition or philosophy was being sought.
There was another sign in the shop that irked me rather. It was I’d seen before, when I was in Judd Books. It was the sign that said no bags were allowed downstairs. So I was quarantined on the ground floor again. But I couldn’t get Jim Crace’s Quarantine for a second time, could I? No. I was torn. There were some great 2nd hand books on offer here, many of which I’d heard of but hadn’t seen on sale before. So in that respect I loved it. But banning people from going downstairs with bags is stupid and unwelcoming. So in that respect I hated it.
What book had I seen that could encapsulate feelings that mix both warmth and coldness in my attitude to the shop. Well, there was one, though the biblical reference may have been lost on the shopkeeper.
Book purchased: Thomas Hardy’s A Laodicean
- Henry Pordes Books
There was one more bookshop on Charing Cross Road I felt I had to visit. Henry Pordes has a slightly odd look from the front. It’s not particularly neat but neither is it so higgledy piggledy that it acquires charm. It just looks a bit unloved.
As you walk in, it’s a bit TARDIS like. You might get the impression from the outside that it’s the same size as Any Amount of Books, but in fact it’s quite a bit larger, as the shop goes back more than 10 feet. It’s not clear what the ordering was supposed to be. A fairly big alcove to the right contained a lot of oversized hardbacks, mostly on fairly run-of-the-mill history, quite a bit of which was military. This is really not my area of interest so I searched for some time for anything that could be a contender for a book to buy.
One of the interesting features was the height of the shelves, as some were unreasonably tall and you need a ladder just to read the spines. The staff were all rather sour-faced and when I did eventually make my purchase the chap on the till gave a rather disdainful look for a reason that I have yet to fathom.
I did evetually find a section of the shop that took my fancy, as it had some more ancient history as well as science here. I didn’t find any sign of a religion section in the shop, which was rather disappointing. For those books that weren’t signed first editions, they were reasonably priced, often about 2/3rds of the RRP that is printed on the cover. Having not picked up too many science books on my travels thus far, I concentrated in this area. The one that jumped out as me was a book by an author I have yet to read, though his reputation in physics is mighty indeed and who I think bears more than a passing resemblence to Dominic West.
Book purchased: From Quantum to Cosmos by Neil Turok
So I come to my final bookshop of my pilgrimage. I knew this one was in Peckham, but it was a part of Peckham I’d not been to before. I am used to the main road, which is always dirty, with rubbish strewn everywhere. Review is just 100 yards or so from here, yet it is almost half a world away in a much more gentrified part of Peckham.
It has the nice touch of being one of those shops with a bell that rings as you enter. Plushly carpeted, it’s one of the nicest underfoot of all the bookshops I visited. The place has clearly been done up fairly recently, though the ceiling still betrays the slightly more shabby start in life that the shop must have had.
There is a fairly open part of the shop with a few displays before you get to the back where most of their books are kept more densely. One of the charms of the shop was the idiosyncratic labels that were used to describe the various sections. Unfortunately, the non-fiction offerings were a bit scant, especially in science and religion. So it felt most appropriate to go for a fiction work. Of these, there was a reasonable collection, though there was little here that jumped out at me. The ones that did, other than the one I chose, were Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
Book purchsed: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
With that, I end my tour. There are many more bookshops around London that haven’t even got a look in here. I f you want some sort of conclusion, it will have to be that it was great fun doing the exploration and partially made up for my bank screwing me around, denying me my first overseas holiday in 5 years.
There are some lovely places and some absolute stars. So if you’re in the capital my “must visit” bookshops are (in alphabetical order, no ranking here):