It is a late November afternoon and the last hour or so of daylight. The outside air is damp and misty and traffic streams down the Charing Cross Road as I push open a door and enter a warm stuffy room lined from floor to ceiling with shelves of second-hand books. An amiable silence imbues the space, offsetting the background din of the busy street and the roar of passing buses or the occasional wail of a police siren. I am immediately drawn into the silence of this other world which forms such a contrast with the world outside and as I join my fellow browsers, my heart leaps in anticipation of what I might find on the shelves this afternoon.
One of the joys of second-hand bookshop browsing is not knowing what you may find on the shelves. Go into any of the high street bookshop chains and you know, as you approach the shelves, you will find the latest best-selling titles, the thrillers and crime novels, the celebrity autobiographies and cookery books all neatly shelved in author order or stacked on tables. But entering into any of the second-hand bookshops around the Charing Cross Road or Russell Square, you are in for an adventure: books long out of print; first editions; books signed by their author; hardback and paperback – all kinds of treasures lay in wait.
I discovered the joys of bookshop walking whilst a student at one of London’s music conservatoires. In between classes, needing to escape for a while from the cacophony of the practice rooms, I began to go for walks around the district. Just along from the college, on Marylebone High Street, my eye was caught by an Edwardian shop front with books displayed against a William Morris fabric backdrop. Inside, at the front of the shop, books were elegantly arranged on oak tables. There were vases of flowers and a quiet air of companionable solitude infused the atmosphere. At the back of the shop, a long room with an oak gallery lit by skylights, was crammed full with books arranged in order of geography rather than genre. And this was the pull. The books were all first-hand, but shelved under India, for example, were books by Indian novelists, books on Indian history and, of course the ubiquitous travel guides along with books on Indian art and politics. This was my introduction to Daunt Books – an independent bookshop established by James Daunt, a former banker, in 1990. The shop on Marylebone High Street was, I discovered, thought to be the oldest purpose built bookshop in the world and the oak shelving and gallery was original. Daunt Books quickly became my refuge from the storm and stress of college life and many hours and more than a few pounds were spent there during my college years.
But I soon began to wander further afield. A fifteen-minute walk westwards took me to Archive Books tucked away behind Marylebone Station on Bell Street. Here I discovered a rather damp smelling windowless basement full of second-hand music. Boxes upon boxes of scores, sheet music and books on music were piled on top of each other and books flowed off the shelves onto the floor and onto every available surface. An upright piano, also stacked high with boxes, allowed you to try out any piece of music you found interesting. My nose tickled with the dust as I rummaged through the boxes. A cycle of songs by Hugo Wolf set to verses of Michelangelo that I had never come across before, was eventually added to my repertoire and tucked into the back of a volume of the complete harpsichord works of Rameau, I found a flyer for a 1963 recital of his works at the Wigmore Hall. The treasures there were endless and now, almost thirty years later, whenever I visit, the basement seems even more stuffed full.
Gradually, my bookshop walks encompassed a wider area and began to take up whole afternoons and even days. Around Russell Square I discovered what I have come to call a ‘Golden Triangle’ of bookshops that begins on Marchmont Street with Judd Books and SKOOB (tucked into a basement just off Marchmont Street behind Brunswick Square) leading on to Oxfam Books on Bloomsbury Street and then along Gower Street to the old Dillon’s University Bookshop – now Waterstone’s – where you can find second-hand titles interestingly shelved alongside the first-hand.
Before long coffee shops became part of the itinerary and the bookshops along the route were soon linked to nearby coffee places where I could sit and browse through whatever treasure I had had the luck to find. And If I was unlucky on any particular occasion, I could at least rest my feet. And over the years, as I have continued to walk London’s streets in search of whatever – I am never really looking for anything in particular – I have drawn up a list of rules. Bookshop walks are best taken alone unless you happen to find a kindred spirit with whom you share the comfortable silence that is essential to browsing. They do exist but I choose my walking companions carefully. And I now find weekday afternoons to be the best walking time. Sunday afternoons, which used to be a favourite time, now find the shops a little too busy with fellow browsers. Whilst I enjoy the gentle companionship of other bibliophiles, a bookshop walk, for me, is essentially a solitary occupation to be enjoyed as quietly as possible.
As I look at the bookshelves in my room and take down a title, I am reminded of the occasion, the place and the walk that took me to it. My home library contains many joys and brings back many happy memories. I am glad to have the American editions of Martin Amis’s Experience and Andrew Motion’s biography of John Keats rather than the British – just to be a little bit different. I treasure a first edition of the Penguin Book of Lieder – found in a Notting Hill bookshop for a few pounds – and a fine hardback first edition of Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child along with Willfred Mellor’s Beethoven and the Voice of God which I later saw in an antiquarian booksellers catalogue at five times the price I paid for it.
Thirty years have passed since I first set foot in Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street and my bookshop walking continues. Some of my old haunts have sadly disappeared as rents in prime locations have soared, but new ones have also appeared and as the second-hand bookshops began to re-open after the recent lockdowns, with bottles of hand sanitiser now a familiar sight amongst the stacks, I was to cheered to see that my favourites had all survived.