Sometimes going back in time is a colossal mistake. I remember traipsing after my father along Charing Cross Road to various little bookshops with lead fronted windows and solid wood doors. I didn’t pay too much attention to the shop’s names for as soon as I stepped inside, I was instantly lost somewhere between the rows of shelves. My father, if he had wanted, could have left me, and found me several days later, nose still stuck in a book, safe and sound. Somewhere around 1985 my father was determined to visit all his childhood haunts, and we headed back to Charing Cross Road. I was worried. I knew how much his memories meant to him, and I also knew life moved on, but he was determined to relive his past.
He marched ahead of me, sure of his destination, but when we turned the corner onto Charing Cross Road, he stood stupefied, not sure where to go next. Charing Cross Road had changed in the years that he had been gone. Now instead of the familiar was the new, video shops, kebab shops, and gone were most of the little bookshops with dark interiors to stir the imagination. He stood on the street, dejected, almost puzzled that his memory of hours lost in these bookshops had been robbed by progress. Refusing to accept the changes, we soldiered on, and luckily Foyles was still there, as it was in the late 1930’s. The bookshops are still there on Charing Cross Road, but I wonder if his memory had played tricks, and it was the shops in Cecil Court that had held his heart, with its second-hand books, and antiquarian little bookshops. I will never know for sure, for memory has a life of its own creation.
No matter how little money we had when I was growing up, there was always a new book for Christmas. I often didn’t appreciate my father’s idea of a good read, as one year for Christmas he gave me a copy of the Oxford Dictionary illustrated. I still have that book, and cherish it now, even though the back of the spine has cracked and wouldn’t fetch tuppence in one of those antiquarian bookshops.
Antiquarian bookshops have a marvellous smell to them and apparently the smell of old books is decay. According to the Fiction Writer’s Review, “Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin. When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good.”
Well, that explains it. Never mind, I just like how books smell. I love the old leather bindings, the thin rice paper in some books, the heavier paper in others, and the scribbled messages inside the covers of old books. Decay…well in a way that makes sense, books do indeed have lives of their own. For a while they are hot off the press, everyone reads them, devours them, shares them, and then like us, they slow down with age, until only a few are remembered with the passage of time.
There has been recent talk of the demise of the independent bookseller. I have to disagree. I can’t imagine a world without them. This is a time of struggle and change for the little bookshop, but I believe there will always be people who want to go into a little shop and have someone point them to a discovery, saying, but you must read this book!
Bookshops, little ones, will become more highly specialised; The Mystery Bookshop, the Travelling Bookshop, The Fish bookshop, and the booksellers, experts in their respective fields. More events will be held; workshops, writers, and reading groups will all find a home in these little shops. Shakespeare and Co., another favourite of mine has a blog, and the shop itself, tremendous charm and history. For other’s it will be the service, provided. The little bookshop will have an Internet life, where if you can’t get to them in person, you can pop off an email instead of a letter, like in the famous bookshop novel, 84 Charing Cross Road.
Everyone has a favourite bookshop, in my short story, Ted’s Day Out; my bookseller not only serves tea to his favourite customers, but can also recommend a book for you to read, anything from Horatio to Waugh. I don’t believe my bookshop is just a work of fiction, I know they are out there, waiting for our discovery, and like any marvellous find, needing to be shared.
One of my favourite shops that I would like to share with you, I found by delightful accident is John Sandoe Books, which is tucked in a little street, 10 Blacklands Terrace, London. The shop started in 1957, and according to their website was partly devoted to the grooming of poodles, the other half a junk shop. Its history is as charming as the place. It’s a rackety 19-century building crammed head to toe with books. When I went in there, I only got out of the books by having a dedicated appointment elsewhere, otherwise you might still find me there crammed somewhere in the piles of books on tables and stairs. I didn’t go in with a particular book in mind, but the salesgirl pointed me to an author she thought I might like. What a thrill it is to discover a new writer. This time, it was, Someone at a Distance, by Dorothy Whipple. A writer I had not been aware of, and a writer I was delighted to read.
This is the bookshop of the past and will be of the future, a shop where the staff knows their books, are avid readers, and delight in guiding you to new discoveries!
Even though we can read books on our phones and computers, we will always want to hold a special book in our hands. We will always want that special gift, in which we inscribe, with “much love to” …and the date. In the future, as now, you will leave these little shops, crammed with books and personality, feeling the weight of a new book in your hand, and a promise of magic in its pages.