All Change At Maggs Bros Ltd
Tomorrow, Maggs Bros Ltd will be closing the door after seventy-eight years in Berkeley Sq prior to opening new premises nearby, but I managed to cross the threshold in time to explore this astonishing five-storey Georgian mansion stacked with rare books and manuscripts.
The green carpet is as springy beneath your feet as moss in the deep forest, compounding the wonder of this house of arcane marvels and delights of a literary nature presented in palatial rooms furnished with fine marble fireplaces and elaborately-decorated plaster ceilings. Beneath the garden, a vast basement is filled with bookshelves of further treasures. Once the residence of George Canning, Britain’s shortest-serving Prime Minister, these premises also enjoy a reputation as London’s most-haunted house.
A long line of photographs ascends the stairs, commencing with Uriah Maggs who founded the family business in 1853 at the foot and culminating with Maggs of recent years at the head. Former generations bought and sold the Codex Sinaiticus, two Gutenberg Bibles, a copy of Canterbury Tales, the first book printed by Caxton in England, and – notoriously – Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis.
Although Maggs is one of the oldest established firms of book dealers in existence, the current incumbent, Ed Maggs, bears his legacy with an appealing levity. ‘It came as a surprise to me to be a bookseller,’ he admitted in the seclusion of the basement tearoom. ‘I was going to be Reggae star but that didn’t work out and I had nothing else to do. So I came here in 1979, when I was twenty-one years old, and I sabotaged the accounts department and then the packing department, before I was apprenticed to a wonderfully curmudgeonly old bookseller by the name of Bill Lent, and I realised what a good job it was.’
‘We have twenty-one years left on the lease, but rather than stay and let it dwindle, we’ve sold it so we can buy a permanent home,’ he explained, ‘The heartbreaking thing is leaving the accretion of details that will have no meaning to anyone else.’ And he indicated an old catch upon a cupboard. ‘I’ve been looking at that for thirty-five years,’ he confessed in tender sentiment.
‘I always say my role is like being a Mahoot sat upon a tilt elephant that knows exactly where it wants to go,’ continued Ed, a man who cherishes his metaphors, ‘But now we are changing direction, it is like the Sultan’s Elephant, a simulacrum controlled by a group of people who need to work both independently and in unison.’
Ed’s son, Ben Maggs, sat across the table listening to his father as he sipped his tea and nibbled a biscuit thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps it was lack of ambition, but I never expected to do anything else – it was a fact of life that I would be a bookseller,’ he declared with a singular level-headedness in contrast to his father’s thwarted Reggae ambitions. ‘I knew I would be a bookseller and I became one.’
Ben Maggs, the youngest bookseller in a line that began with Uriah Maggs in 1853
The line of Maggs ascends the staircase
Stairs ascending to the haunted room
In the basement tea room
In the stables at the rear
MAGGS BROS LTD new shop opens 46 Curzon St, Mayfair, W1J 7UH tomorrow
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