Sitting by the fireside a friend persuaded me to reminisce about my years in the book trade: I started at the beginning when I first came into contact with the bookshops in the Charing Cross Road, in the early nineteen seventies. Here’s a couple of these old acquaintances;-
The first bookshop you came to was Joseph’s, which stood on a corner, with a frontage running along both Charing Cross Road and Cranbourn Street; looking, with its dark green paintwork and the bold gold lettering above the towering windows, as prosperous and well-heeled as, strangely, at that date, it really was. Dark days were to come for this ageing aristocrat of the book trade but, for the moment, the only blot on the fair countenance was the outside shelves, which ran around the whole length of the frontage, crammed with their burden of books, blocking the magnificent expanse of plate glass, and, for me, making it infinitely more beautiful; because these were books I could afford.
Almost all the second hand bookshops in the Charing Cross Road, and elsewhere, had shelving outside, in many cases pretty well covering the shop with books, like a sort of protective shell, and in most cases the booksellers had more cheap stock then they could fit on these shelves, so that the books were pilled and pushed into every cranny of the shelving. When it was pointed out to one bookseller that books were being pilfered from outside his shop, he said, on the whole, he thought the thieves were doing him a favour. How much commercial advantage such outside shelving brings I was never clear: I found, when I owned a bookshop myself, that there was a greater sense of gain in getting a pound or two for a book commercially valueless than in making a satisfactory profit on a rare book I was loathe to part with, but it’s surprising how much time these cheap books and, still more, their purchasers used up ( because they could and would talk), and furthermore in the case of truly noble growths of this kind, the very windows of the shop would become obscured by the books outside and, given the coating of dust on what little glass was left uncovered, the books within that might attract the deep pocketed and discerning collector, were scarcely visible. But the sense of exuberance was delightful: it was as if books were escaping from the shop like birds released from an overcrowded cage, and to me these shelves were a gold mine.
What would I find today? Hurrying up, running my eyes over the shelves from a distance, I selected the patches amongst the crowded shelves that looked most interesting and flitted, butterfly like, up and down, before settling down to a systematic examination from one end to the other. If it was a day when my friend John came with me there might be a little frisson of competition, with one eye cocked to what the other picked up or discarded, and there was a joyous optimism in youth that made the search through these ragged volumes as exciting as any visit to Sotheby’s or Christie’s in later years; and what books there were than that were undervalued! Would that I could step back in time for half an hour and fill my arms with them. Incomplete sets of Swift and Pope, from the Eighteenth Century, were commonplace, often in good leather bindings with the bookplate of some noble collector inside to add interest; the occasional Seventeenth Century tome, discarded because of a missing portrait or because it didn’t justify the cost of rebinding; early editions of Nineteenth Century novelists in crisp bright cloth, distained as not being quite right in the details the collector required. On one day a collection of file copies from Faber and Faber (publisher of T.S. Eliot and many of the greatest Twentieth Century poets) appeared on Joseph’s outside shelves, and provided rich pickings.
By now I have had time to select my purchases from outside Josephs, and become aware that that the day is passing and that I must hurry on, if I am to see as many bookshops as possible on my day in town.
One of the advantages of purchasing a book from the outside shelves was that it acted as a ticket of admission to a shop where I was unlikely to make a purchase inside. The dark green paint, expansive gold lettering and wide expanse of plate glass which gave the exterior of Josephs such an aristocratic character, in comparison with some of the other shops around it, was perhaps replaced by a more commercial character inside the shop; that of a retired stockbroker or banker, perhaps, who remained very sharp. Joseph’s drew many of its customers from amongst wealthy North American collectors, and how important these were to the upper, or ‘Antiquarian’ end of the second hand book trade can be seen from the fact that one west end book dealer priced his books in dollars for their convenience. Even the books on the shelves upstairs in Josephs were priced in tens of pounds at a time when I was pleased to have ten shillings in my pocket, and it was well known that the basement of the shop was filled with books at eye-wateringly high prices. However, with my purchase from outside in my hand, I could handle a few of the precious volumes inside: unlike the books in some shops, it was easy for me to see why these beautiful copies of desirable titles found buyers at high prices and I envied both the seller and the customers who could afford them: you felt Joseph’s were onto a good thing. But it wasn’t long before the dreaded approach of the be-suited assistant with his reproving: ‘Can I help you?’
Besides the inside of Josephs was worth seeing; because it sums up what a bookshop looked like then. Even in an expensive shop like this there was nothing fancy and, when I first saw it, around 1970, I think it was already past its prime and showing signs of the passing years, like an aging gallant.
Beyond the glazed double doors, every inch of the walls was lined with tall dark bookcases stretching up, far beyond reach, almost to the ceiling; but they were stained pine, rather than oak or mahogany, so that the wood was lighter where it had been chipped, and furthermore, the shelves themselves were honourably worn away by the traffic of thousand upon thousand of books across their surface. Even on a sunny day the shop needed electric light, because the windows were obscured by bookcases, and this light seemed yellow, rather than white. The floor was uncarpeted and the surface of the floorboards rendered uneven by years of use, so that you could see the great shinny nails that held it together sticking out in places. I think Josephs was the last shop in London to have a coal fire, rather than central heating, and the wide fireplace stood by the desk, which was strategically placed by the window, facing the door and with a good view of what was going on amongst the shelves. The effect was utilitarian and rather shabby, as if money had been spent freely in the past, but that now no more was spent than was necessary. I think today it would qualify as shabby-chic and grace the cover of Homes and Gardens rather well.
Josephs was run at this time by two brothers; Jack and Sam Joseph, who with their staff ran a prosperous business, but one of my last memories of the shop was the one surviving brother, was it Jack or Sam?, sitting gaunt and bent almost double by the fire and banging on the floor with his walking stick for an assistant to come up from the basement to see what I wanted. The floor beside him was now so worn that you could see the light in the basement though a gap between two floor boards. When the firm gave up the shop, it passed through the hands of two other book sellers, growing shabbier and shabbier, the hallowed basement now filled with cheap books and open to all, until at last it succumbed to inevitable fate and became a coffee shop. But even today, despite the work of designers and decorators, there are still a few features left that I recognise, and that recall Josephs’ glory-days to me when I pass.
The founders of Foyles, William and Gilbert Foyle, were of that rare breed of men who become wealthy by the process of honest hard work. The universality of the association of the name Foyles with books for much of the twentieth Century was incredible; anyone who worked near the Charing Cross Road would have innumerable enquires as to the whereabouts of Foyles; far more than for all the other bookshops together, and for much of this time there must have been two dozen bookshops in Charing Cross Road. It was as if Foyles was the only bookshop of which people had heard, and this was not just in the accent of Hampstead and Whitechapel, but those of New York and Australia and everywhere in between I’m sure many people, like me, could draw the fat red lettering of the name, as it appeared on Foyles receipts, with their eyes closed. Today Foyles has returned to its roots, with enthusiastic staff and a stock that shows the owner’s have their finger on the pulse of every changing taste in new publications, but in the 1970’s and 80’s, like so many bookshops I recall, Foyles seemed frozen in an enchanted sleep.
At the time of our visit there was a large display of rather tatty second hand books on the ground floor, which was worth picking over for bargains, although Foyles sold primarily new publications. Foyles also sold antiquarian books, but I never penetrated to this august domain. Away from the second hand books even the new stock was often rather dusty; and this stock of new books was also worth browsing because books sometimes remained ‘new’ here, long after other shops had either sold them, or returned them to the publisher’s, and sometimes the prices was not increased in Foyles, to keep pace with the rampant inflation of those years, using with the little stickers that the publishers sent to bookseller’s to paste over the original price. This sometimes meant the book was available ‘new’ from Foyles for below its second hand value. Some of the stock they acquired did seem excessive in quantity: I can recall looking with awe at several bays of shelving, filled with hardback volumes of the collected works of that prolific novelist Somerset Maugham, with a dozen or more copies of most of the titles; as a tyro bookseller I was well aware that the sun of his long popularity was most definitely waning.
You could travel between the floors in a lift, of the old fashioned kind, with a sliding lattice gate though which, when it had clanged shut and the lift had started to move, you could catch a glimpse of each floor as it slowly passed. In each department were one or two knowledgeable staff and, if you needed help in locating the book you required in this ocean of books, you had to catch the attention of one of these harried men and women, because most of the staff seemed to have been dropped by chance amongst books of which they were ignorant. After a while you leant to recognise these knowledgeable staff and made a bee line for them. Folyes was the personal fiefdom of Christina Foyle, whose literary lunches were world famous and attracted the most glamorous names in literature, but she was said to be out of sympathy with the growth of laws relating to employee protection, so that many of the staff were hired on short term contracts. Like many smaller booksellers, perhaps she found the costs of running a bookshop made it hard to break even, let alone make a profit. One former employee told me that at Christmas he was asked to go and see her, in her den on the fourth floor. He had worked hard in a position of some responsibility, for a very modest wage and had hopes for a respectable bonus, but after thanking him for his work, she presented him with - a box of chocolates. Another former member of staff told me that this presentation of chocolates was fairly general and that he found it grating to express the thanks for them expected of him.
Even supposing you located the book you wanted, your troubles were not over, because you could not simply pay the assistant for your book, or even take your book to a till and pay for it. The assistant scrawled an invoice by hand, which he gave you, but retained the book. You then went in search of a cashier; these women and the money for which they were responsible, were kept behind bars, in small cages, dotted about the shop. Joining the queue of would-be customers from other departments, you waited your turn to pass payment through the bars and have your receipt stamped ‘Paid.’ Once I tried to use a credit card and was redirected to an office on the fourth floor, to complete such a suspicious transaction. By the time you returned to the department, with your stamped receipt, to collect your book, the assistant who served you had often disappeared;- perhaps they had gone to lunch or, who knows, their temporary employment been terminated, perhaps the sea of books had simply closed over their heads. But, even when they were present your book often had to be sought for, having been lost amongst the innumerable books and papers flooding over the table at which they stood. It seemed to me curious to introduce such difficulties in the way of someone who wished to buy a book, and I cannot help feeling that, at this date, Christina Foyle and the managers of the shop had lost their enthusiasm for the business of bookselling. Yet, now, I would give a good deal to travel in the old creaking lift and queue to have my receipt stamped ‘Paid’, although, all those years ago, I was quivering with impatience during this drawn out procedure.