Almost a decade ago, I stumbled out of academia and found myself working at Quinto, an independent bookshop opposite the British Museum in London. It had recently been refurbished but the layout of the shop was as eccentric as the titles getting sun-bleached in the front window (a 1996 copy of A History of Phallic Worship, anyone?).
Downstairs, in the rarities room near the sci-fi and fantasy corridor, one of the tall shelves doubled as a door; it would swing open eerily upon the pressing of a plastic buzzer hidden behind some dusty old tome. There was nothing special in the room beyond it – just cobwebs, a few boxes sent over from head office in Hay-on-Wye – but its existence seemed to me to epitomise the character of the shop: in its best moments, it was as much a cabinet of curiosities as a place of business.
Its parent branch on Charing Cross Road, also called Quinto, had been selling second-hand and rare books for decades. Long before the American writer Helene Hanff immortalised the street in 84 Charing Cross Road (1970) – an account of her 20-year correspondence with a buyer at the antiquarian booksellers Marks & Co – the area enjoyed a storied association with the city’s literary scene and its accompanying book trade. In its 1950s heyday, denizens of the nearby drinking dens of Soho, from Dylan Thomas to Auberon Waugh, would stagger from shop to shop, scanning the heaving shelves.
Let them eat cake
By the turn of the century, that association was fast breaking down. Endless rent hikes and the rising popularity of online shopping led to the ousting of local institutions such as the feminist bookshop Silver Moon, which found refuge in the larger indie Foyles.
Another casualty was Murder One, then the UK’s only crime and mystery bookshop. Gone, too, are the art specialists Shipley and Zwemmer and even larger rivals such as Waterstones and Borders. Quinto’s shop near the British Museum closed years ago and its labyrinthine Charing Cross Road branch was moved up the road. In its place today is a Patisserie Valerie.
But the area’s remaining booksellers are fighting back. One recent Saturday, Rupert Street in Soho held its first “international book fair” – in reality, a few stalls manned by a couple of charities, a library and a small selection of central London’s indies. Despite the economic gloom, the mood was positive.
At his stall, Alex from the socialist bookshop Bookmarks stressed the need to be proactive. “The problem is making ourselves known. We have to take our wares to the people.”
Steve of the comics shop Gosh! agreed, adding: “There’s no point in trying to replicate a large chain. Instead, we can curate things a little better.” He warned that, with the demise of the Soho book trade, “We could lose the mix that makes it an appealing place.”
Where Paris protects its bookshops with subsidies and by fixing trading prices, London seems intent on catering for Starbucks and other corporate chains. I for one hope the indies’ emphasis on community and expertise saves them from ruin.
An excellent map of London's bookshops (including the new Quinto address) can be found here.