Charing Cross Road and Kanda

March 26 2010

I nearly posted a lament for Quinto’s and Francis Edwards in Charing Cross Road (the Bloomsbury Quinto closed a couple of years ago) when I walked past an empty pair of shops a few days ago, but they are moving from 48a to 72. Quinto used to buy up academic and scholarly libraries and change its entire stock monthly. What happened to the unsold books? The business model kept people coming in, though there was junk too. A year or two ago, a connecting door with Francis Edwards was put in. From then on the stock changed less frequently. The shop became tidier, more spacious and less interesting.

It used to be fashionable to disparage Foyles (for new books), because it was so disorganised. Dillons in Gower Street, closer to London University, was preferred. But Dillons never had any atmosphere, and in 1999 it became Waterstone’s. (Waterstone’s is the Starbucks of bookshops. Howard Schultz believed that Starbucks – in Europe! – was a new “third space” between office and home.)

The problem with Waterstone’s, and most “modern retail”, is that there are no surprises. Foyles was eccentric. Wikipedia: “Christina Foyle refused to install any modern conveniences such as electronic tills or calculators; nor would orders be taken by phone. The store operated through a payment system that required customers to queue three times (once to collect an invoice for a book, and then again to pay the invoice, then a third to collect the book), simply because sales staff were not allowed to handle cash. Equally mystifying to customers was a shelving arrangement that categorized books by publisher, rather than by topic or author.”

The three queues allowed the employees who couldn’t be trusted with money to mount a sustained scam, suspected in 1994 and proven in 2000. It had been going on for years, and I can picture in my mind a bespectacled assistant on the ground floor (male) who, I am convinced, was in on it, if not behind it. I don’t think I remember the organisation by publisher.

Foyles was and is large enough to be full of surprises. For several years after 2000 second-hand volumes were occasionally found on the same shelves as brand-new – a wonderful enrichment – and sub-lets to outside second-hand dealers occupied one or two corners. Perhaps they had done all this before. For decades, there was a Foyles-run antiquarian section on the third floor. Most or all of that richness has gone. Foyles, apart from a café on the first floor, is now a regular bookshop.

Shops in Charing Cross Road close faster than they open. (Ordinary antique, as distinct from junk, shops in the UK are extinct.) Zwemmers (art books, two shops in the road) closed in 2003, Shipley (art books) in 2008, Murder One in 2009. Henry Pordes at no 58-60 survives. Borders came into the UK in 1998 as a pale reflection of its US self and bought a sub-Waterstones called Books Etc. It closed in Charing Cross Road (where it traded as Borders) in 2009 and Borders UK went into administration. Blackwell’s opened in Charing Cross Road in 1995 as a very pale reflection of its Oxford self and is still there.

Cecil Court, between Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane, is more or less intact as a bookselling alley. Is Charing Cross Road a great bookselling street? The Kanda district in Tokyo is said to have 176 bookshops. Even if you are looking for books in English, Kanda beats Charing Cross Road (perhaps not Cecil Court) for quality of twentieth-century stock. The decline of Charing Cross Road (but when were the great days?; when were eighteenth-century books last sold there?; even good Victorian books are now rare) is partly due to rents. It probably is not mainly due to online selling. The recession might slow the decline down. Bloomsbury, once a rival but more upmarket centre, is in worse trouble.

84 Charing Cross Road was a book by Helen Hanff, later made into a stage play, television play and film, about a twenty-year correspondence between her and Frank Doel, the chief buyer of Marks & Co, which closed circa 1971. The film somehow escaped having Emma Thompson in it.

Any Amount of Books at no 56 has a site about book collecting. On March 23 it posted a piece about the odd volumes of sets that all booksellers dread. “Third in line [after bits of Churchill’s The Second World War and after Proust] used to be Toynbee’s 12 volume Study of History, but it is now of so little value that attempts to make a set are futile – odd vols get recycled, tossed or put in the £1 bin. This does not stop the entrepreneurial Bookbarn demanding £99 for an ex-library reprint of the ninth volume.”

A complete Study can be sold for several hundred dollars, so why not try to make the set? The answer is that these “monstrous” volumes (AJP Taylor in MF Ashley Montagu, editor, Toynbee and History, Boston, Porter Sargent, 1956, writing of VII-X) look so gristly, intractable and, often, lonely (one of twelve is lonelier than one of two or three) that all booksellers’ hearts sink. This blog tries to show their charms.

84 Charing Cross Road

Kanda district (Flickr credit: nobuojp)

5 Responses to “Charing Cross Road and Kanda”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    I may be harking back to a golden age that never existed.

  2. [...] Charing Cross Road and Kanda [...]

  3. [...] Charing Cross Road and Kanda [...]

  4. davidderrick Says:

    The (charming) 1987 84 Charing Cross Road film has a very accurate reconstruction of the Marks shopfront on the east side of the road, with St Martin Music (presumably then functioning) on the left and Poole’s (ditto) on the right.

  5. davidderrick Says:

    Blackwell’s cannot last much longer now and will not be missed.

    Foyles is also looking sadder: there seems to be less inventory.

    We do now have to blame online selling.

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