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All Change At Maggs Bros Ltd

November 26, 2015
by the gentle author

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

Below stairs

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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17 Responses leave one →
  1. Geoffrey Smith permalink
    November 26, 2015

    Hauntingly sad really but nice photos. How he will miss that door catch.

    It will make a cool and exclusive design hotel though…..

    I appreciate the blog very much.

  2. November 26, 2015

    How sad that such a wonderful institution is closing. Thanks for the report and photos, their house has so much charm and character. Valerie

  3. Barbara Elsmore permalink
    November 26, 2015

    Wonderful, marvellous photos – what a magnificent record of the end of an era. Do please photograph the new premises if you can as I am sure we all fervently hope it will look much the same.

  4. David B permalink
    November 26, 2015

    Wonderfully atmospheric photos. I can almost smell the interior. Their removers must be dreading the job! Why are they moving and what is to happen to their current premises?

  5. Jean Gaffin permalink
    November 26, 2015

    Looking at these wonderful photographs I wondered how they plan to move to new premises – downsizing from a small house to a tiny bungalow was hard enough. Thanks for a fascinating breakfast read. Maybe you should go back with your camera on moving day(s0?

  6. November 26, 2015

    Goodness, how fortunate I feel. A friend who used to work there, showed me round not so long ago. It is a magical place, felt like time was ticking slower in there. Lovely post.

  7. Phaedra Casey permalink
    November 26, 2015

    Two blogs in two days related to *the same file* in my archives, amazing! I also spotted my gg grand father’s (Henry Edards) van in front of Spitalfield’s Market in Liam Farrell’s painting that you featured a while back, and through Liam made contact with an offshoot of my family tree! Thank you.

  8. Nina Archer permalink
    November 26, 2015

    ….. Uriah Maggs! – I love that name, straight off a Dickens page! ….. is he the ghost in in the room at the top of those stairs, do tell us GA ? (… having seen those lovely photos of the accumulated contents needing to be packed up has given me heart to tackle all my stuff when I eventually up sticks and move !! …….

  9. November 26, 2015

    It is sad to see, when bookshops like these close. My good wishes for the new start!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  10. Tamara permalink
    November 26, 2015

    How sad, I love Maggs. I was shown around by one of the family when I was a teenager. We spent the whole day playing with beautiful ancient books and I still have the little leather bound Tacitus he gave me. I wasn’t able to take photos then so thank you so much for refreshing my personal memories and recording this wonderful place for posterity.

  11. Judith Haxton permalink
    November 26, 2015

    Beautiful photographs. I especially loved the signed spare copies of James Joyce in a cardboard box !!!
    Judy

  12. November 26, 2015

    Thank you for taking such lovely photos of our home at 50 Berkeley Square! For anyone interested in the details about our (Maggs’) move, here is a link that should answer some of your questions:
    TinyURL.com/MaggsMovingTimes
    On behalf of everyone here at Maggs, thank you everyone for your lovely comments. It is always joyful to hear that others love this place as much as we who have been lucky enough to work here do.
    We hope to see you all soon.
    Best wishes,
    Alice (and all at Maggs)

  13. Pauline Taylor permalink
    November 26, 2015

    Maggs is a very special bookshop, Ed managed to sell a very rare first edition for us to one of his clients, he is a bookseller of the old school, a true gentleman! As we have just moved close to 40,000 books to our new premises we know what is involved in keeping track of everything, I hope that their move will go well.

  14. Ros permalink
    November 26, 2015

    ABsolutely FABulous photos!

  15. Lesley Russell permalink
    November 27, 2015

    Lovely memories of time spent in Berkeley Square with John Maggs and his Australian friend, our uncle, Dom Serventy whenever Dom came to London. Hours spent in the company of the two of them introduced me to so many wonderful treasures, a pleasure that has lasted for decades.

  16. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    November 29, 2015

    Superb post today, gentle author!! I started to salivate as I studied those shelves stacked with amazing history. Wonderful photos……………… aaahhhh…..

  17. Rosemary Stevens permalink
    February 12, 2016

    I was fortunate enough to be shown round the whole building and garden before you left, and was enchanted and captivated by everything. I wish you well in Curzon Street and must come back to see whether you still have the chest of drawers (which used to be on the topmost floor in Berkeley Square) containing what I thought of as “Cherished Fragments”. These were mainly single, ancient, vellum leaves, and vestiges of leaves – including cutout capital letters and mutilated medieval texts. I shall be back for more searching and wonderment – even hopefuly purchase!

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