A London Bookshop Crawl
This is a going to be a long one. Put the kettle on, make a cup of tea, and settle in. This post also covers similar ground as my “Quiet of Bookshops” post, which would make a good accompanying read.
As I sit down to write this, rain patters outside atop car roofs, buildings, and skylights. The weather forecast for Los Angeles is rain for the next four days with highs and lows hitting roughly the same temperatures. It’s the perfect weather to pick up a book and get cozy beneath the covers. I find the sound of rain to be one of the most therapeutic sounds and it makes for the perfect white noise accompaniment when trying to read or concentrate. I’ll sometimes put on rainymood at the office when I need to read yet the nearby sounds are too close and loud for me to fully concentrate. It puts my mind at ease which is something I’m hoping this weather does as well.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the travel these books took to get here, and the travel that goods take in general. They were distributed across a suitcase, duffle bag, and backpack to take their flight across the ocean with me. Yet what it is the impact of having things and myself flown across the world, and what is the footprint left behind? There’s the cross of ideas that comes with materials being taken to new locations but as the world appears to be growing smaller with the instant accessibility of the internet, is there a need for these items to physically travel? Access to new worlds and people have expanded through our fingertips but I would argue that there’s still a benefit of picking out new ideas in person. Yes, the internet has helped to expand my view of the types of stories I want to visit and has made me more aware of what’s happening on a global level, and yes, I think it is worth a discussion of what’s the impact on the planet when you contribute to having things flown across the world for your enjoyment; but I also think there’s something about physically being in a place and leafing through the shelves that opens up doors you might not have found otherwise. It’s a bit of a paradox as I try to make a conscious effort to chose food that is local and goods that are from my community, and yet, I will have have a book flown to me from England because it is the edition that I wish to have.
I don’t have an answer for this quandary as it’s something that I hadn’t directly considered before. I’ve been known to have tea and special book editions mailed to me, as they’re not available where I live. Persephone Books aren’t sold in the US, as of now, and as I’ve dived more into the difference between UK and US book covers, I sometimes find myself favoring one over the other. Does it help if the companies being supported are independent? And is there a difference between picking something out in person and supporting the local business where you are at the time versus using a large corporation to have it shipped over? This was not a question that I had considered while in England and was going from shop to shop to buy these books, or the Colin the Caterpillars, or the tea from local shops. Yet it was something that I started to consider as I sat down to write this piece. I am moving away from the nature of this post though I do think it’s an interesting conversation to have and think about. Now on to the books.
The trip to Foyles occurred on a very similar day. The skies were filled with grey clouds of varying intensities as thick raindrops splashed against the pavement. My red birthday umbrella from Mr H had it’s first outing as we bundled up in scarfs, rain jackets, and wellies. The trip to Foyles almost didn’t happen. Mom and I had arrived that morning to Heathrow and once we reached the house in Brixton both of us were feeling worse for wear. A nap beneath rainy skies followed by a lunch in the Brixton market helped to revive us slightly. October 6th was Bookshop Day organized by Books Are My Bag which made my desire to visit at least one bookshop even stronger. Before we arrived, we came up with the plan to visit multiple shops and really experience all that Bookshop Day had to offer but with the weather and ourselves being on the grayer side, all we had in us was one trip. In the US, we do an Independent Bookstore Day that takes place in April and from what I can gather is very similar in its goals and outreach. Last year, Courtney and I played literary trivia at Skylight Books and came in third which one us a tote bag. I think it was the better of the three prizes.
Away we travelled on the Victoria Line toward central London. Ages ago I had been to Foyles once before when the Tottenham Court Road tube station was under construction. It must have been the Charing Cross Road location but I don’t remember it looking as grand and magical as it did on this rainy day, or that there were so many levels. I thought I remembered walking through the ground floor in search of the plays and fiction. This time when we entered it was a refuge from the rain and the onslaught of people exiting the station during that first wave of rush hour. It was a haven for us to rest and browse, but first things first, it was time for tea. We shared a table with two mid-twenty something women who were discussing their working lives and social media events, as we enjoyed two pots of tea.
We circled the staircase from floor six to floor five when I caught sight of the nature section. Leafing through the books I said out loud how I wanted to find a book on the history of English gardens. There were gorgeous table books about gardens lining the shelves, many of which I was looking through but none were quite what I had in mind which was more of a history for how these gardens came into existence. Then out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the teal spine of A Little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow. It was exactly what I was looking for. The sections are comprehensive and break down each time period, plus this edition is filled with gorgeous pictures and illustrations.
As we wound our way through each floor, I spotted editions of books that I’d meant to check out or one’s that weren’t out yet back home. Pages and Co: Tilly and the Bookwanders by Anna James had been published less than a month before and after listening to the wonderful podcast episode between Anna and Jen Campbell, I was excited to find a copy. A couple days later I remember spotting the beautiful window display of Pages and Co at the Kew Gardens bookshop outside the train station. It is the first in a middle grade series about Matilda “Tilly” Pages who lives with her grandparent’s in their bookstore called Pages and Co. It is here that Tilly begins to see Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables inside the bookshop. And here’s the thing, they’re real and talking to her. Alice and Anne take Tilly on her first bookwandering adventure, and from there the whole world opens before her. There’s also a trip to the Under Library located in the British Library which is one of my favorite set pieces from the book. If you were a fan of the Ministry of Magic scenes in Harry Potter, then you’ll love the descent into the library. It is a book about books for all ages. I can’t wait to find out what happens in book two.
More books were contemplated, and the initial search for the green paged edition of The Book of Dust began though sadly it was not on the shelves. Mom had picked out When Breathe Becomes Air on my recommendation and loved it. I have it sitting on my bookshelf as we speak as I also want to take a read. One thing I’ve begun collecting are totebags from bookshops around the world. This Foyles bag is perfect for any type of outing as it has an interior pocket and an interior divider. With our books in tow, we walked to the station and travelled back across the river to Brixton. A late night snack of a leftover chicken burger was held in the kitchen with cups of tea before we retreated upstairs to climb into bed. Up until this point, I had difficulty reading anything fiction and hadn’t picked up a book that wasn’t for work in a couple months. Pages and Co was the first book that I was able to read while still working through this period of burn out. I was immediately transported to the bookshop and loved every moment I spent reading. I think it also really helped to be bundled up in bed, with layers of blankets as the rain continued to fall outside, and to be in the city where the book was taking place. My mind felt at ease for the first time in a while as I absorbed this world.
JOHN SANDOE (BOOKS) LTD
I first learned about John Sandoe’s through the beautiful and ever inspiring photography of Jo Rodgers. It was through her photos and captions that I was told of a bookstore with books on every surface and shelves that looked towering. Upon visiting I learned that there is more magic in those walls than a photograph can capture. We started the day with a delicious brunch at Granger and Co in Chelsea. I could go for a repeat of that meal any day. It was made of courgette fritters with halloumi, harissa, quinoa and buckweat, and lots of herbs. The fritters and offerings change throughout the year though I bet whatever is on special would be delicious. We walked through the streets of Chelsea past the red bricked buildings. Across from Granger and Co is Papersmiths, a beautiful paper and pen store where we stocked up on new pens and notebooks. The day was full of walking along the high street, picking out new perfumes and boots, visiting the Chelsea Physic Garden and finishing with a Sunday roast. But first, a visit to the bookshop.
John Sandoe (Books) Ltd is made of three adjoining eighteenth century shops. It spans three flours with beautiful window boxes lining the first floor. Books fill every surface from the first table and window displays you spot walking through the front door to the full bookshelves lining the room. The floors creak, the building has a slight lean, and the bookshelves upstairs have the ability to move as you browse. There is so much charm and character to this building that radiates everything within its walls. On a front table was the bright yellow cover of The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Short Story which I came back to again and again but ultimately left on the table. Then in the basement there was the beautiful new edition of Simon Armitage’s version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on a table with Faber & Faber collections of WWI poets.
I wandered each floor and fell into an indecisive mood of whether or not I wanted to pick up any books while exploring. That was when I saw Lucy Wadham’s Heads and Straights lining the front window. It is an autobiographical tale about her youth in Chelsea in the 1970s. Back in 2013, Penguin released a series of books as part of their Underground Lines series. This book represents the Circle Line. Before this trip I hadn’t spend much time on this line but we spent a lot of time on the District and Circle over our days and I came to look forward to the overground portions of our ride. In the back of the book there’s a map that directs you to which line you should chose based on what you’re looking for. Head and Straights was recommended for those looking for stories of romantic encounters, tales of growing up and moving out, and musical direction. It was the opening paragraph that caught my attention and with its Chelsea connection, it seemed like the right book to take home. I loved that the paper bag it was placed in also featured an illustration of the storefront.
The first time I admitted publicly to having been brought up in Chelsea I was thirty-five and at the launch party for my first novel, which was being held in a tapas bar in Clapham. At that stage in my writing career I wasn’t aware that I was allowed guests of my own, so it was just myself, the sales team from my publishing house, a handful of book reps and some booksellers. After supper we pushed back the tables and danced. It was easily the most fun I’ve had at a literary event (1).
LONDON REVIEW BOOKSHOP
I was one step away from entering the LRB Cake Shop when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the cover of Weatherland: Writers and artists under English Skies by Alexandra Harris. The spine was facing me with it’s cloud covered sky and rolling green hills. It looked like the book for me as I flipped through a few pages and felt the weight of the book in my hand. At this point I was very hungry and wanted to get to lunch as soon as possible. I said I would come back, and return I did after squash soup and treacle tart, my first one ever. Weather is something I often think about in relation to my day-to-day life and there’s a sort of romanticism that I carry about storms, yet I hadn’t thought about how the weather of other times may have influenced the works of other artists and authors before me. How they too might be musing on how the rain collects in the Lake District or how the winter cold buried itself in their bones. Nature books have held a certain hold over me as of late. I feel the desire to collect them as I attempt to better understand the world around me and the way in which it is changing. Part of this newly found interest I think has to do in part with my fear for how the world I know may no longer exist someday, which is something Alexandra Harris discusses in the introduction. She mentions wanting to write this book as a way to look at the weather of past and present England, as someday we may no longer have weather that matches what we currently know and experience.
My subject is not the weather itself, but the weather as it is daily recreated in the human imagination.
If I read straight through English literature, or at least if I tried to read in a roughly chronological way, would it be possible to feel the weather change? I was not serious about this until I spent a summer reading poetry and chronicles from the Anglo-Saxon period. There was seemingly no interest in warmth (except that of the indoor fire), whereas perceptions of winter were expressed with incomparable subtlety. Then sun was nowhere to be seen, and I wanted to know when spring would come.
It amazed me to realize that there have been times when weather is an all allegory and others when the numbers on a rain gauge count for more than a pantheon of aerial gods; there have been times for meteoric marvels and times for gentle breeze. It is hard to find a description of a rainy night in the early 1700s, but by the end of the eighteenth century the Romantics will take a storm, or even just a shower, as fit subject for their most proving meditations (16, 17).
Other books that fall in this category should you wish to read more, some I own and others I’ve browsed are: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane (I picked up my edition at Blackwells in Oxford in 2013, along with a copy of Lynda Mugglestone’s The Oxford History of English), The Orchid Hunter: A young botanist’s search for happiness by Leif Bersweden, Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles by Jon Dunn, among others.
I briefly handed off Weatherlands as I ran downstairs. It was in that brief moment as I climbed down the stairs that I first spotted The London Scene by Virginia Woolf. It was a pleasant surprise to find it under the tree on Christmas morning from mom who had picked it up from its shelf when I was out of sight. The introduction is written by Hermione Lee, who is also the author of an excellent biography of Virginia. The book is a compilation of Virginia’s bi-monthly essays from 1931 that were published by Good Housekeeping. She’s taking a stroll around London, taking great pleasure in observing the city, its people, and all the subtle details we so commonly miss. She visits the East End docs, the Houses of Parliament, Oxford Street, and Hampstead Heath. Virginia has a way of transporting me into whatever she is observing and with the memory of walking through Hampstead Heath still fresh on my mind, I can’t wait to read about how she saw this part of London during her time. Though I do think Mrs. Dalloway does a marvelous job of capturing the city her characters inhabit, and explores another version of the London Virginia knew so well.
In the basement, I did a quick browse of the poetry shelves where the vivid cover of The Forward Book of Poetry 2019 stood out among the other editions. I learned about the Forward Prize of Poetry through Jen Campbell as she was one of the judges for last year’s competition. I love to discover new poets but am sometimes at a loss for where to find them and a collection is one of my favorite ways to find new voices. Charly Cox’s She Must Be Mad is also on my list of new poetry to check out.
As I stood in the checkout line, I struck up a conversation with another woman who was buying Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown, a book I had looked at picking up a couple times for Courtney, my resident royal expert. The book was recommended to her by a LRB bookseller whose opinion she trusted. She was off on an airplane that day and wanted something fun to read. We discussed plane books and this book in particular, then it was her turn to pay and she was off. With our new books in hand, our feet took us through Bloomsbury.
Before visiting Persephone, I sat down with the Persephone Letter and read through the latest catalogue updates. The Priory, which I reviewed here, introduced me to Dorothy Whipple and I was eager to read more of her work. Her writing rings true while also being cutting, witty, and a slice of life. It’s like she’s talking to the reader and you want to hear more about the characters who populate her worlds. High Wages was one of the titles that I had originally circled in the catalogue, though I had then forgotten about the other titles I circled until I began browsing the shelves. The book is about Jane, a young working woman, who gets a badly-paid job in a draper’s shop at the beginning of the 20th century. She wants to ask for a raise and has to fight her boss for one. It’s a novel about the city and this young woman’s fight to be independent. From its description, it seems to follow similar themes as the later half of The Priory. I am excited to get stuck into Dorothy Whipple’s language again and to see where her characters end up going.
A Lady and Her Husband was a book that found me. I was on the lookout for a new book with a feminist perspective and this fit right in that category. I already had High Wages in my hands but was unsure of what other titles might spark my interest. It was this description on the first page of the preface that really sold me.
I wish I had not found A Lady and Her Husband via HG Wells. When I read his 1909 novel Ann Veronica, I fell in love with the heroine, a 21-year-old bluestocking who flees the suburbs for London, where she studios biology, becomes a suffragette, and storms parliament. But I felt betrayed by the ending where she suddenly elopes with her older teacher and becomes his cringe-makingly surrendered wife. It didn’t ring true. It turned out there was a reason for this: it wasn’t true.
The real Ann Veronica was Amber Reeves, an uncompromising, brilliant young woman who had an affair with Wells when she was 21 and he was 43. They did elope, but she never became dull and submissive. In fact, she went on, among other things, to write eight books, including this one. When I tracked it down, in a dusty library copy that no one seemed to have borrowed in a while, I found the feminist writing I’d been looking for.
Preface by Samantha Ellis.
I want to know more about Amber Reeves, her life, and her work. The idea too that this book was found as a dusty library copy that hadn’t been borrowed for quite some time was appealing too. One thing I love about Persephone is that they are book discovers. They find books in all sorts of ways, and then give them a fresh cover and a new audience.
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was waiting for me under the Christmas tree as well, along with a lovely notebook from Persephone. I was familiar with the title as years earlier an adaptation was made starring Felicity Jones. At the time, it was hard to find a copy of the movie. I watched the first fifteen minutes as Felicity’s character was getting ready for the wedding and contemplating what brought her to this moment but never made it to the end as the video kept stopping and I abandoned the mission. The novel was first published in 1932 by Hogarth Press, Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s publication. It is a short read that will go very well with these rain days that are popping up each week. I love that even though these editions look uniform on the shelf, each has its own flair of color and design hiding beneath its cover. I am always impressed with the quality of material that Persephone publishes and can’t wait to dive into these three.
We walked past the scaffold covered facade of Hatchards as we made our way to Fortnum & Mason. There wasn’t time for a proper stop as our tea adventures took as long as I should’ve expected and then off we went to the Globe. I didn’t think a stop was in the cards until we found ourselves in the St. Pancras International arrivals terminal and there stood another Hatchards. The feeling is the same as their flagship store but on a smaller scale. The book on my list was The Book of Dust (full story below) yet I was taken in by all the other books calling out. I was trying to be quick as I moved among the shelves and thought about how I did want to pick up a copy of Lethal White that the lady at the till was reading but yes it would take up too much space in my carryon that was already taking on enough weight. It was in the YA section that I saw the new editions of Matilda. Quentin Blake, illustrator of Roald Dahl’s books, was asked to imagine where Matilda might be today if she had become an adult. The new covers are to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the book’s publication in 1988.
There are three editions which were released on October 4, 2018, depicting Matilda as Chief Executive of the British Library, a World Traveller, and Head of the International Astrophysics Institute. I chose the British Library edition as it felt the most fitting for me. The British Library is located around the corner from St. Pancras International and King’s Cross yet I still have not been able to visit in person and it keeps being added to the list for next time.
I came to Matilda much later in life. I was familiar with Roald Dahl’s books and remember reading James and the Giant Peach as a kid but didn’t make it much further into his other works. The film came out when I was a kid, though I never had a desire to see it, and somehow I managed to live into my twenties before ever reading it. The first edition I read was Mr H’s that I borrowed and dutifully devoured, and it was during that reading experience that I wished I had met Matilda when I was a bookish kid as it felt like we had so much in common. My bookish companion during those pre-teen years was always Hermione and her resolve that everything could be solved with a trip to the library. Something I came to believe as well.
Matilda is about a young girl who is a voracious reader. She lives with a family that doesn’t understand her and think she’s a nuisance. She must face Mrs. Trunchbull, her kid hating terror of a headmistresses. It is when Mrs. Trunchbull attacks Matilda that she learns she has the power to fight back. It is a book for children and adults alike, and one that is sure to bring out the best in you.
With Matilda having celebrated her 30th birthday last year, and with mine of the cusp of this year, it felt right to have an edition of my own. And such a pretty one at that.
The Book of Dust travelled through the post, twice. Back in September I had seen a picture of the paperback edition with green splayed edges, and at that moment, knew I needed to find it. Yet it is only available in independent bookshops across the UK, and then, only certain locations had it in stock. I had searched across London bookshops attempting to track down it down but it remained elusive. When the Book of Dust was first released, I was very excited to read but first wanted to revisit the full His Dark Material series as I had only read The Golden Compass and half of The Subtle Knife growing up. It felt important to know about the full series before embarking on this new trilogy so on Christmas Eve 2017, I began reading Northern Lights. I went for the 20th anniversary editions of the three books each with a different metallic cover. The events of the first book were refreshed in my mind as I was once again transported to Lyra’s world. I remembered back to my first meeting with Iorek Byrnison and Lee Scoresby and Serafina Pekkala. Yet meeting them again was less like seeing old friends and more like meeting someone for the first time after hearing so much about them.
The Harry Potter books and The Chronicles of Chrestomanci were the fantasy novels that I read as a child and teenager. I felt like maybe I had missed the Golden Compass wave, the same way I started reading Artemis Fowl before abandoning the series half way through. I do think there is something interesting about coming to a series as an adult, especially one that I started as a child. To take Harry Potter as an example, I still have very fond memories of the series and still love it, but as I’ve seen how the fandom and canon has evolved around the books it makes me less excited to return as I’ll never be able to capture that original magic. Also, as my perspective and knowledge has evolved from ten to twenty-nine, my ideas about the book has also changed as has my take on the story. So while His Dark Materials was written with younger readers in mind, I do find it an interesting study to see how the book works on many different levels.
It took me the full year to finish the His Dark Materials series. After Northern Lights (published under that name in the UK and The Golden Compass in the US, which is the edition I read first time around) I took a break to wait for the next two books to arrive by post and also to space out the read so I could savor each piece individually. It wasn’t until November that I picked up The Subtle Knife, almost a full year since I started the first book. I remember being thrown the first time as it opens with Will’s introduction in our world after spending so much time with Lyra in hers. This time I was sucked right in and enjoyed seeing the Oxford that I had once visited and thinking about how it compared to the one we’d seen before. Yet it was The Amber Spyglass that I loved the most, and is the book that I still think about out of the three.
I had honestly forgotten about trying to track down the book when I watched a video from Book Break about a visit to Mr. B’s Emporium in Bath. Mr. B’s offers a book spa where they’ll sit down with you and pick out the right books for you based on what your interests. And there on a background table sat the green edged edition of the Book of Dust. I decided the next day to order the book from Blackwell’s in Oxford. Blackwell’s was established at 48-51 Broad Street along one of Oxford’s main roads 140 years ago. It felt appropriate to buy the book from Oxford, as the city plays such a pivotal role in the books and also holds a personal pull for me. The book was ordered online and in a few key strokes was on its way. I was worried about the right edition arriving and was told there was no way to guarantee 100% which edition I would receive as it could be coming from the warehouse. During this process I learned that the Blackwell’s family has expanded to other stores across the country and on my favorites, Heffers in Cambridge, is part of this family.
The book arrived on a rainy December 1st in its cardboard home except it was the standard paperback. A couple days passed and with the cost of returning the book to be too high, I called the Oxford location directly, not realizing that when I first ordered that the book wasn’t coming directly from the store, talked with a lovely woman who pulled the book off the shelf for me with the promise to mail it the following day. It arrived among the swirl of Christmas mail and it was all I hoped it would be. The first copy will be gifted to a wonderful new home as it is still perfectly lovely and traveled the ocean to get here.
The Book of Dust is the first book in a new trilogy that is an “equel” to the original series, rather than a prequel or sequel. It takes place in the same universe and in this first book Lyra is a baby. The second book will take place twenty-years in the future, years after the events of the Amber Spyglass, and the third book will also take place when she’s an adult. Dust is a central component to the original trilogy. I suspect that we’ll learn even more about Dust and it’s role in this world throughout the new books.