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The Antiquarian Bookshops Of Old London

November 20, 2022
by the gentle author

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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

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25 Responses leave one →
  1. David Elliott permalink
    November 20, 2022

    Much as I remember from the 1950’s when I used to visit. Wonder how many are left; I believe that Foyles are no more; and what of the famous 84 Charing Cross Road?

  2. Paul Huckett permalink
    November 20, 2022

    You bring back a lot of memories . My Australian employer sent me to London in the 1970s to gain work experience with a friend of his . Great time and incredibly valuable but poorly paid . I too wandered those same bookshops . I was able to buy old editions of Australian books , often for a few shillings , or at the most, a few quid . I still have them all . I’ve collected books all my life , often buying in London on business trips ,or more often now at auction or retail online .

  3. Paul Loften permalink
    November 20, 2022

    Evocative photos of a London that once had so many private bookshops . I don’t mean those sort of private bookshops but even they seem to be disappearing! How much would you have to sell a book for now to cover the cost of the rent and overheads in these expensive areas of London ?
    Thank you GA for bringing these photos to us .

  4. Antony R Macer permalink
    November 20, 2022

    Judd Books at 82 Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury is probably the best you will find these days.

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    November 20, 2022

    Mr Maggs looks like he was established in 1855 – straight out of a Dickens novel!

  6. Jeff Lawlor permalink
    November 20, 2022

    It’s a sad sign of the times that bookshops are a rarity now, but what happened to all these old books when the shops closed down?

  7. November 20, 2022

    Of course, 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 30s to the 50s, early editions of A. A. Milne’s Children’s Books a.o.m. — I love the atmosphere of the shops, inwards also as outdoors. The photos show these situations very impressively.

    A special experience for me was the visit to the small community of Hay-on-Wye in Wales in 1999 with their dozens of bookshops. I really hope I can finally go back there next year!

    Love & Peace

  8. Andy permalink
    November 20, 2022

    Lovely photos. Lovely memories.
    One or two mine.

  9. Slingsby Slugge-Pelet permalink
    November 20, 2022

    Lovely to see these old photographs. Mr Maggs looks quite Dickensian!

  10. Steffen permalink
    November 20, 2022

    Back in those days without google people went to bookshops and libraries. The world of mass media has taken over. Here in Berlin the same pictures could have been taken. Today people go to an amazing library like the one around the corner, Amerikanische Gedenkbibliothek, where people can sit, read, eat, listen to videos and chat in events such as ‘Sartre today’. Moreover, these places are warm, cosy and for many poor Berliners – home. And you can have food for moderate prices. There is a super modern library in Helsinki with PC rooms and rooms where teachers teach you knitting and sewing, and there is a children’s corner for kids and parents.

  11. Lee martin permalink
    November 20, 2022

    How I miss the Charing Cross road bookshops there’s a wonderful one in Eastbourne called Camillas rumoured to have half a million books they’ve been there for twenty five years I e know. Of still going strong today ?

  12. Winnie permalink
    November 20, 2022

    So sad that these have now all but gone. I remember Shipley on Charing X Rd. Going there to get the books I needed for History of art, etc. I’m fairly certain I loitered by an open fire on many occasions there. Heaven.

  13. Pauline Taylor permalink
    November 20, 2022

    We still have our bookshop here in Colchester but I assure you it is not dusty and it is housed in one of the best buildings in the city. Dating from c1400 it was once the home of the scientist and physician to Elizabeth I the late great William Gilbert (1544-1603). A man generations ahead of his time who gave us the word electricity, who drew the first very accurate map of the moon and wrote the first scientific book to be published in England. Come and visit us in Trinity Street and see if you will encounter Dr Gilbert in one of our many rooms.

  14. David Antscherl permalink
    November 20, 2022

    What memories today’s photographs brought back! As a child in about 1950 I remember walking along Cecil Court with my father and looking into the shop windows of the booksellers there.

    However, I smiled when I saw the image of Louis Bondy’s shop in Little Russell Street. I had the good fortune of knowing his son in Canada and met Louis, then in his early 90’s, when he visited Adrian. We had an animated conversation and, when he had established that I had an interest in books, asked whether I would like to see his collection. “Of course,” I said, thinking of a future invitation when I visited London. He got up, left the room and returned with a tin biscuit box. His complete collection was inside – the most wonderful collection of miniature books I have ever had the pleasure of examining! They ranged in age from the 17th to 20th centuries.

    I was told later by Adrian that he always kept the collection with him and rarely showed it to anyone. He specialised in miniature books. As a thank you, I later made and bound a miniature book for him. He was delighted.

  15. November 20, 2022

    Without a doubt, this post is one of my favorites. Your stories of significant/gathered books and the evocative photos……….Goodness, you have taken us on a journey this morning. I suspect each of us have returned home with mythic tote bags full of “I couldn’t resist” treasures. And you’ve reawakened memories of favorite book haunts, near and far.

    Pre-pandemic, I occasionally gave art workshops in France, and afterwards there was “extra time” left over to visit Montolieu, the so-called French Book Village. My heart still leaps a bit, just recalling the winding cobbled streets, specialty book shops (maps, limited editions, art books, ephemera, novels, etc) and the truly agonized process of deciding what to bring home. With so many towering shelves and tables full of books, one couldn’t possibly study each volume, so I decided to let the books find me. Among other finds, I ended up with a lovely volume (French language) on the topic of Russian “lubok”. Until that day, I didn’t know anything about these rustic folk prints, and their significance. Years later, I found an English-language version of the same old book———– and (quite fitting, methinks) I discovered it in my LOCAL used book barn, right here in the Berkshires. Book travels are always the BEST travels.

    Thank you GA.

  16. jennifer galton-fenzi permalink
    November 20, 2022

    How interesting London used to be……and not forgetting the wonderful Welsh book shop, Griff’s, at No 4 Cecil Court.

  17. Jane Manley permalink
    November 20, 2022

    The first photo is of Mark’s and Co at 84 Charing Cross Road. It achieved worldwide fame when the American author Helene Hanff published a book of correspondence between herself and the staff from the late 1940s until the late 1960s. It was later turned into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft. How sad is it that 84 Charing Cross Road is now McDonald’s.

  18. John C. Miles permalink
    November 20, 2022

    What wonderful, wonderful atmospheric photographs – oh, halcyon days! These emporia were havens of peace, calm, civility and represented the very best that London had to offer. I bought my treasured copy of Gervase Markham’s The English Husbandman from HM Fletcher in the late 1980s for the then-princely sum of £50. That amiable bookseller’s sales pitch was, ‘How can you possibly refuse – it’s a rare book you can actually READ!’

  19. November 20, 2022

    Second-hand bookshops seem to be gradually disappearing from our world. In the famous town of Royal Tunbridge Wells in the County of Kent, I visited 2007 an extraordinarily beautiful Antiquarian Bookshop — HALL’S BOOKSHOP.

    It was here, at this very spot, that the wonderful short film “THE LAST BOOKSHOP” was made in 2012, a hymn to that slowly disappearing cultural institution:

    Love & Peace

  20. aubrey permalink
    November 20, 2022

    During the late 60’s I worked in an engineer’s office nearby: and on my way home in the evening I used to idle my way past the Garrick and wander into these fascinating book shops. The shops I used to enter the most frequently were the late lamented Collets and Foyles where I’d purchase technical books and OS maps(one of the many aids I used in my cycling days). I read Tristram Shandy one time – left me clueless!

  21. Saba permalink
    November 21, 2022

    One of the all-time best posts! But, seeing all those people eager to read the beautiful volumes makes me rather sad. I am quite sure book lovers still exist, but only actually know two out here in the hinterlands of upstate New York.

  22. Marcia Howard permalink
    November 22, 2022

    Favourite and precious books are one of my treasured possessions

  23. November 23, 2022

    I caught the last days of the Charing X sellers, Josephs I visited weekly and having grown up in the north and with a diet of the Beano and Beezer and R.L Sevenson and H. R Haggard and then later Heinlein and Aldiss and Van Vogt, my eye was always drawn to the Victorian children’s books I paid between £5 (poor copy) to £20+ for a decent copy of the Boys Own annuals and Henty etc, for about a £10’er. They are still about that price now 50 years later.
    In 1975 I was out of work (again) and wandered into a shop in Finsbury Park, Blackstock Road called “The Stroud Green Bedding Company” and (like I do now started talking to the dodgy looking owner)) I asked to see some gilt edged leather bound books he had on a shelf I couldn’t quite reach. Nah! he said, “bleedin’ fings books”, I puts ’em aht and vey still leave me wiv ‘ver crap” and then left me. I wandered the small shop (it wasn’t a bedding shop and wasn’t in Stroud Green) .HE was a thin drawn sallow Londoner with about 4 teeth who’s dad had had THE original shop in SG until the Germans bombed it.
    He was a rare cove and looked like Dell Boy’s grandad, had stains all down his brown cavalry twill trousers a cheroot on and a trilby and a weird looking Alsatian dog who seemed to want me for lunch.
    I got talking and he took me in the back room and threw blankets off about 7-8 tea-chests of books, the top ones were green and white crime penguins, the orange fiction all over the boxes and lots of other clean and nice serious literature and art, poetry and children’s books. He said he had a bloke who came and he sold them all to him. I asked how much would you ask? he said “vey must be a fasand books in that lot ver son, I’d want £50 quid, “hate the bleeding fings”
    I bought them with my last £50 of £75 I had in my sock (and he lied, there was 732) I drove them to my bedsit and sold a small batch to a bookseller who I bought off in Camden Passage (now a famous author) and he gave me £120 for about 40 Penguins and copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses and an 1855 copy of Walt Whitman’s Leave’s of Grass in wrappers. Lets say the adage. “A little knowledge is dangerous” was true. I sold another batch to Eamon Nolan at Chancery Lane Books for £450 and then another batch from “Bob” for £750 and I have been selling books ever since. I had bought a TV and film directors books called Peter Hammond. If I had known then what i know now I would have contacted him and have always felt bad. Bob had a deal with a Pickford’s warehouse on the same corner and any late payers on storage they sold to Bob. I then bought a bricked up room from 1914 they located and the books were in old army type wooden crates all nailed down I watched them open them and the books were all fine 19th century literature and boys Victorian books. I paid £180 and then he cottoned on he was too cheap as his book clearer came and berated him. I never saw him again, but HE got me bookselling and there but for the grace of God…

  24. Molly Guenther permalink
    November 28, 2022

    Wonderful, thank you. For the providing the pictures of all the books, the booksellers, the customers, the store fronts. It was very enjoyable.
    Again, thank you.

  25. Amos Julien permalink
    February 14, 2023

    I would dearly recommend a visit to Walden Books in Camden Town: its a treasure house full of hidden gems and interesting titles.

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