The Antiquarian Bookshops of Old London
At Marks & Co, 84 Charing Cross Rd
When Mike Henbrey reminisced for me about his time working at Sawyer Antiquarian Booksellers in Grafton St and showed me these evocative photographs of London’s secondhand bookshops taken in 1971 by Richard Brown, it made me realise how much I miss them all now that they have mostly vanished from the streets.
After I left college and came to London, I rented a small windowless room in a basement off the Portobello Rd and I spent a lot of time trudging the streets. I believed the city was mine and I used to plan my walks of exploration around the capital by visiting all the old bookshops. They were such havens of peace from the clamour of the streets that I wished I could retreat from the world and move into one, setting up a hidden bedroom to sleep between the shelves and read all day in secret.
Frustrated by my pitiful lack of income, it was not long before I began carrying boxes of my textbooks to bookshops in the Charing Cross Rd and swapping them for a few banknotes that would give me a night at the theatre or some other treat. I recall the wrench of guilt when I first sold books off my shelves but I found I was more than compensated by the joy of the experiences that were granted to me in exchange.
Inevitably, I soon began acquiring more books that I discovered in these shops and, on occasion, making deals that gave me a little cash and a single volume from the shelves in return for a box of my own books. In this way, I obtained some early Hogarth Press titles and a first edition of To The Lighthouse with a sticker in the back revealing that it had been bought new at Shakespeare & Co in Paris. How I would like to have been there in 1927 to make that purchase myself.
Once, I opened a two volume copy of Tristram Shandy and realised it was an eighteenth century edition rebound in nineteenth century bindings, which accounted for the low price of eighteen pounds. Yet even this sum was beyond my means at the time. So I took the pair of volumes and concealed them at the back of the shelf hidden behind the other books and vowed to return.
More than six months later, I earned an advance for a piece of writing and – to my delight when I came back – I discovered the books were still there where I had hidden them. No question about the price was raised at the desk and I have those eighteenth century volumes of Tristram Shandy with me today. Copies of a favourite book, rendered more precious by the way I obtained them and now a souvenir of those dusty old secondhand bookshops that were once my landmarks to navigate around the city.
Frank Hollings of Cloth Fair, established 1892
E. Joseph of Charing Cross Rd, established 1885
Mr Maggs of Maggs Brothers of Berkeley Sq, established 1855
Marks & Co of Charing Cross Rd, established 1904
Harold T. Storey of Cecil Court, established 1928
Henry Sotheran of Sackville St, established 1760
Andrew Block of Barter St, established 1911
Louis W. Bondy of Little Russell St, established 1946
H.M. Fletcher, Cecil Court
Harold Mortlake, Cecil Court
Francis Edwards of Marylebone High St, founded 1855
Stanley Smith of Marchmont St, established 1935
Suckling & Co of Cecil Court, established 1889
Images from The London Bookshop, published by the Private Libraries Association, 1971
You might also like to read about