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The Bookshops Of Old London

August 12, 2020
by the gentle author

At Marks & Co, 84 Charing Cross Rd

How I wish I could go back to the bookshops of old London. When I saw 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

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36 Responses leave one →
  1. August 12, 2020

    I recall some of these shops from when I was a student in London. Each had its own idiosyncrasies and quirks. I’m sure time stopped when one was in them; it didn’t fly, that’s for sure. And around the corner in Long Acre was Stanford’s map shop. That entire quarter was magic!

  2. Jean Clements permalink
    August 12, 2020

    What wonderful places to spend an endless amount of time, and what treasures within

  3. August 12, 2020

    Ah yes – so many wonderful bookshops where I used to while away many hours – although the lack of orderliness in many used to frustrate me – great piles without proper organised homes!

    I particularly liked Francis Edwards’ shop on Marylebone High Street. It has that wonderful wooden gallery in the back which is still there today (Daunt’s). I used to visit regularly whenever I stayed at my sister’s flat just around the corner in Chiltern Street. There was an older man in the shop in those days who took me ‘under his wing’ and who saved ‘little finds’ for my next visit! I’m sure the little finds should have been put into the exclusive rare books room, but he looked after me because he knew I loved my books as much as he did!

  4. August 12, 2020

    Completely and utterly fascinated to find our bookshop, Daunt Books included here in its former guise as Francis Edwards. I loved reading about your precious memories. Thank you.

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    August 12, 2020

    Browsing in bookshops is one of my favourite pastimes too, especially if they are independent and eccentric enterprises full of hidden treasures!

    And what a shame that so many bookshops have disappeared – presumably because of rising rents and competition from online book sales? We have recently lost the lovely bookshop in our local village, although there is a second hand bookshop in the nearest town which seems to be surviving. And I imagine he will be receiving loads of new stock from people doing a cull of their books during lockdown (hopefully they won’t all be by Dan Brown!)

  6. August 12, 2020

    Well, yes, these are the Paradise Places! When I first came to England in the late 70s my earliest Walks were to the Secondhand Bookshops, which were (and are!) to find in every small Village, but certainly especially in London. I found Treasures here: British Literary Rarities, many old “National Geographics” from the 40s to the 50s, early Editions of A. A. Milne’s Children’s Books a.m.m. — I love the “Landscapes” of the Shops, inwards also as outdoors. The Photos show these Situations very impressively.

    An extraordinary Experience for me was the Visit to the small Community of Hay-on-Wye in Wales in 1999 with their dozens of Bookshops. Would like to return to this Place one Day.

    Love & Peace

  7. Sue Condon permalink
    August 12, 2020

    The bookshops of London, oh to live in one!
    Wonderful article. ?

  8. Jude permalink
    August 12, 2020

    Aladdin’s caves. But I bet those that worked there knew where everything was.

  9. August 12, 2020

    George Orwell’s article on working in a bookshop is a good read.

  10. Joan permalink
    August 12, 2020

    For anyone who hasn’t seen it there is a very good documentary called The Booksellers which documents the decline and remaining relicts of the New York book trade. It came out last year. I only stumbled across it via a favourable review in the Financial Times. It is full of stories and characters and you can almost smell the books. It is available to rent online via the usual channels.

  11. August 12, 2020

    What a lot I missed. Did Maggs and Sotheran about once each [not at the cheap end] but where is Quaritch? So many I missed!

  12. Pauline Taylor permalink
    August 12, 2020

    I just cannot believe that this is your chosen subject today GA. I am feeling very sad as my son will be opening our shop GfB The Colchester Bookshop for the first time since the lockdown and I shall not be there. It is the first time that I have missed a day since my husband died, apart from holidays. We, Roy, my husband, and I, opened the shop as Greyfriars Books (hence the GfB) in 1983, all four of our parents had died between 1979 and 1982 and we had just enough money as a result of those sad events, to see us through as we learnt the business. Both of us were bibliophiles and had bought our first books from jumble sales in the village where we grew up. I still have some of mine including a Kate Greenaway Language of Flowers. Later on I bought odd volumes from the, oh so traditional, Castle Bookshop in Colchester which I also still have. Tony Doncaster, who ran the Castle Bookshop, became a good friend and helped Roy and, later, our son Simon, whom he saw as his successor in Colchester.

    As the years went by the business grew, Simon insisted on becoming part of it and Tony’s prediction has come true, as he has adapted to changing times and now sells books online all over the world and to a wide range of customers in the shop from a dustman to an earl. One of our more memorable customers was the late Ian Paisley who came together with his wife, and they were accompanied by their armed guard who stood between them and our door the whole time which was a bit unnerving to say the least. Mrs Paisley stayed and talked to me whilst he was choosing books and got down onto the floor to make a fuss of our springer spaniel, Bessie, telling me that they also had a springer and how naughty they can be. She recounted how, when they were hosting a grand dinner party, the starters, which were cold, had been set out on the table before the distinguished guests were due to arrive. At the last moment she went to check the dining room and discovered that all the plates were empty, the springer had eaten every starter !!

    Since those days we have moved the business to fabulous premises in Trinity Street in Colchester where we have an incredibly impressive roof with exposed timbers which, thanks to dendrodating on the main beam, we now know was constructed c 1400. Customers can access that very large area within the roof and look out over the rooftops of Colchester whilst browsing amongst the books. Almost immediately opposite is the church of Holy Trinity where they can admire the Saxon door and see all the Roman bricks which were used in the construction. We are so privileged but rather disappointed, as although No7 was the home of Dr William Gilbert, physician to Queen Elizabeth I and author of De Magnete, the first truly scientific book to be published in this country in 1600, we have never seen him. Everyone else in our street seems to have at least one ghost but not us !! Although one customer, a very normal educated middle aged man, did tell me he was sure he was not alone in one of our upstairs rooms, he looked rather embarrassed as he told me and shuffled his feet a lot, presumably because he wasn’t sure that I would believe him but I was actually a bit jealous. I have heard someone say “Hello” quite distinctly, when there was absolutely no one there, but that is all.

    I feel I should point out that our premises are not a bit dusty and books are not allowed to be heaped up on the floor ~~~ we get lots of accolades for this which gives us a lot of pleasure, it is hard work but when customers tell you that they appreciate it makes it all worthwhile, I just cannot wait to get back and to meet them all again. People who read learn and become educated and most of ours were horrified by the referendum result which I think is indicative of the way in which so many people have been led astray by lies, they do not read widely and learn. Very very sad.

  13. Geraldine Anslow permalink
    August 12, 2020

    Oh how eveocative this is for me! I wonder is the bookstore on the corner of Sicilian Avenue, near Holborn somewhere, still there? I have a treasured volume from Cecil Court, from Marchpane I believe, a copy of the Dreamer of Dreams by the Queen of Romania illustrated by Dulac. I could only afford it because it was pretty beat up on the outside and it was still expensive! My own antiquarian book, what a thrill! Is the Marylebone High Street premises now a branch of Daunts Books? At any rate that interior appears in my dreams, repurposed to whatever the Reve du Jour happens to be, I even got to live in Paris for a while, visit S & Co, of course, but fall in love with the Librarie de Medicis, where a girl called Catherine bought me a book with her last change before payday, a book that truly changed my life. I loved Gibert Jeune Esoteric branch (and their manic Latin Quarter one too, in a different way, with all its beautiful papeterie for stationery freaks like myself). Then in Chicago the tottering piles in a corner seondhand bookshop on Clark Street where I succumbed to exquisite art monographs I’ve dragged around the world since. Transitions Bookstore, Chicago, Silver Moon in the CCR, Mysteries in Monmouth Street. You have provoked tide a of nsotalgia. Such happy hours! Thank you GA <3

  14. David Antscherl permalink
    August 12, 2020

    Louis Bondy! That name brought back a flood of memories. I met Mr Bondy, an antiquarian bookseller, through his son in Canada when he was visiting about 20 years ago. He was a spry gentleman, then in his early nineties. We chatted and he ascertained that I had an interest in books. He asked if I would like to see his collection. I said I would be delighted the next time I was in London. “Oh, no,” he replied, “Would you like to see them now?” Puzzled, I said yes. He got up and returned a few moments later holding a biscuit tin. Was this a practical joke? Had I misunderstood? Was the gentleman senile? He opened the tin.

    What I did not know until that moment was that Louis specialised in MINIATURE antiquarian books. His entire collection was housed in the tin! Each was exquisite and only fully appreciated under a magnifying glass. The earliest was from the 17th century, and some of the bindings were extraordinary. Afterwards his son confided to me that rarely did he show these to anyone. I was honoured to have met Louis and seen his collection.

  15. August 12, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, those are great photos. I can just imagine T.S. Eliot wandering around those old shops. One would wonder who occupies these premise now?

    “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.”

    What a find!

  16. paul loften permalink
    August 12, 2020

    Thank you for this memorable article and those beautiful photos of the old bookshops . I worked for Camden Libraries from 1979 and we would often recieve reports from the public that a library book was being sold in a private bookshop . It was my job to go round there and investigate , it could be anywhere in London . If the book or books were identified by me as public property I was instucted by the library to sieze it . By 1979, I think many of these beautiful old bookshops has already disappeared but I do recall instances where I entered the bookshop , looked on the shelves and found the library books for sale . It was a complicted matter as they could have been obtained in a public sale held by the library . If that was the case ,they would have a “sold ” stamp on them . The bookshops always relented because the value of the books were halved if they had library markings and there was always the possibility of a prosecution. It simply was not worth their while .
    I recall that I was once asked to visita shop , I must say it was not a genteel bookshop but a shop which sold used Videos and CD’s and it was reported to me that they had on sale a lot of public library property. It was frequented by an altogether rougher clientele, and I was seriously threatened by the staff when I told them why I was there. I did have to call the police and they ended up by giving me all the videos back which I had to pack inrto boxes in their shop. It took me a while with the staff and owner glaring furiously down at me . It was a most unpleasant experience .

  17. Wendy permalink
    August 12, 2020

    Lovely descriptions GR and Pauline Talor (your shop sounds lovely). One of my more recent favourites is the Waterstones in Leadenhall Market. The staff are so knowledgeable and really above and beyond helpful. I haven’t been able to visit for a couple of years so I do hope they are still there.

  18. August 12, 2020

    Wait — Is this “the” Mr. Maggs who was the guiding hand behind Sir John Paul Getty’s private collection, the Wormsley Library? I was just looking through art books in my library that had been out of mind/out of sight for a while — and so enjoyed the book on this library. I chuckled to learn that our libraries have ONE thing in common — the illustrated edition of
    “Under Milkwood”. Now, mind you, Sir John’s is the original — but I still do not regret the
    handsome price I paid for this nice volume. A beautiful example of illumination and page
    So enjoyed your reader’s insights today, GA. And thank you for always shining a light.

  19. Christine Maiocco permalink
    August 12, 2020

    O, I can smell these wonderful shops! And I love it that Mr Storey has a bookstore!
    Thank you for posting!

  20. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    August 12, 2020

    I was once addicted to bookshops. The smell of books was like incense, and there was always the sense of a treasure hunt… what wonderful thing might I find today?

    When I lived in New York City on a very meagre income, I had to restrict my visits to The Strand. I would invariably leave with a book that begged me to take it home, and then would have to live for the rest of the week on $5. I became very accustomed to ramen noodles.

  21. Jane Manley permalink
    August 12, 2020

    So lovely to see these photos today, especially the ones of Marks and Co at 84 Charing Cross Road. Last year I was sad to discover that 84 Charing Cross Road is now a branch of McDonald’s and it inspired me to order a copy of Helene Hanff’s book detailing the wonderful transatlantic friendship that she had built up with the staff over a number of years. I think I must have read it when it was condensed in a Readers Digest volume and also remember seeing the film.

  22. Elaine Rose Allessio permalink
    August 12, 2020

    I simply adore bookshops as they are a highlight of my annual visit to London. Thank you for these nostalgic photos as I can feel the atmosphere through them; the smell of the books, the new possibilities to discover and the love of the printed word.

  23. Carol A Viens permalink
    August 12, 2020

    These are wonderful pictures. I can almost smell the books. But WHERE are the women? At home doing womanly chores?

  24. Ian Silverton permalink
    August 13, 2020

    I loved wondering down Charing Cross road when living in UK in and out of all those old shops, then on to Cecil Court for some rare old coins, mainly Gold and Silver, all so cheap then, or so it seemed to me, wonder anybody remember the Book Market in Clerkenwell Green back in the late 50s early 60s stalls put out on a Monday and Tuesday, very interesting place, at the time. Keep safe UK.

  25. Kate permalink
    August 13, 2020

    What a beautiful article. There is nothing like browsing in a proper book store, one of life’s true pleasures. Thank you for sharing this

  26. Yvonne Buffman Cheyney permalink
    August 14, 2020

    84 Charing Cross Road. I have the book and the movie . Wonderful to revisit now and again. In California, we have also lost a lot of bookshops. I haven’t gone to Kindle – just like the feel of a book. Love from across the pond.

  27. August 14, 2020

    This GA entry, together with the soulful comments, might be my favourite S-Life so far.

    It both touched and resonated, as I too came to explore the capital via its remarkable bookshops… when I first got off the boat.

  28. Val Woodfield (was Hopkins) permalink
    August 14, 2020

    This brings back so many memories. I worked at Francis Edwards in the early 70s and was thrilled to see the photographs from that time. Great to be able to share these with my sons and particularly as I am sitting at my desk in the shop in the first picture. I hope to get to London one of these days just to be able to walk around Daunts and recall my days in its previous incarnation. Wonderful memories.

  29. jennifer galton-fenzi permalink
    August 14, 2020

    Wonderful memories, and sense of loss – especially the Welsh bookshop in Cecil Court, focal point of the Welsh community in London.

  30. Chris Connor permalink
    August 21, 2020

    Paradise. Many an afternoon spent looking in wonder at the vast array of wonderful old books. So unfortunate that the majority no longer exist. Oh to be back in Corbet Court, Marylebone High Street and Charing Cross Road, with the familiar smell as you stroll into history.

  31. August 28, 2020

    One of my favorite books about Books:
    84, Charing Cross Road Paperback – October 1, 1990
    by Helene Hanff (Author)
    4.6 out of 5 stars 562 ratings
    ISBN-13: 978-0140143508 ISBN-10: 0140143505 Edition: Reissue

    I wish I could back in time to the Charing Cross Road 1930!

  32. September 15, 2020

    What a rare treat that was! I remember some of those shops from my first trips to London in the 70’s.. Here I am in my own 70’s trapped in rural Australia (which I do love, by the way, and my town has an old and famous bookshop, said to be the best in rural Victoria) and frustrated as all hell because I will not be able to do my annual trip to London where quite a few bookshops are amongst my favourite repeat destinations.

    Thanks for a huge treat!!

  33. Saleh Razzouk permalink
    January 21, 2021

    I had to purchase rare books or expensive ones from second hand stores when doing my ph.d. in England.
    I keep a first edition (but 2 print) of Lady chatterly’s lover by lawrence. The surprise that i tripped on it in colchester during a summer visit in a basement in city centre near the citadel. But not in his birth place city Nottingham the very place where i did my research in.

  34. Amos Julien permalink
    January 28, 2022

    I did strongly recommend that people visit Waterstones on Gower Street.

    Probably the best bookshop of its kind in London.

    Another good posted article thanks again GA.

  35. Harry permalink
    March 9, 2023

    In and out of the bookshops along Charing Cross Road and then into the Porcupine to read the results over a pint.

  36. Amos Julien permalink
    May 5, 2024

    Following up on my previous comment:

    I do think that Waterstones on Gower Street is now the best bookstore on planet earth.

    Everybody should now pop in and discover it (especially the basement section).

    An absolute haven for book addicts and book lovers.

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