It was a tough assignment, but I had the right people for the job. Three book-lovers and shop enthusiasts, one map of independent bookshops and one day. The plan was to visit some of the shops regularly named ‘best in London’ and see which came out top.
I met my friends Mary-Jane and David in the poshest bookshop on our list, G. Heywood Hill in Mayfair. Talk about social credentials. Alongside the Royal Warrant displayed proudly outside the elegant Georgian town house, there was a blue plaque announcing that Nancy Mitford, one of my favourite authors, had worked here during the war. Definitely a bookshop for People Like Us.
The window was a quirky mix of statues, good antique furniture, paper angels and, of course, books. Inside the regular customers browsed in a leisurely fashion, while the staff answered the constantly-ringing phone, greeting callers like old friends, telling them what was new and what was expected, checking their accounts. The stock was strong on history, especially military history, but had a wide range of smaller publishers and lots of second hand or antique books mixed in. I was diverted by a stand dedicated to quirky crime fiction, and also snapped up a copy of the latest Slightly Foxed. Mary-Jane, an expert in historic buildings, fell with excitement on a books of old photographs of the Houses of Parliament, where she works.
The shop had a cosy, slightly chaotic feel, with lots of boxes being unpacked. I felt that I could pick almost anything off the shelves and would go home happy. That feeling – that if the book is in this shop, it must be worth reading – seems to me one of the most precious attributes a book shop can have.
But that was only the first on the list. We popped into a Shepherd’s Market coffee shop to plan our route. We were headed to Soho, but decided to go via Piccadilly and the grandest of grand old bookshops, Hatchard’s. Although not an independent, it is an iconic London bookstore.
‘I have very fond memories of coming here as a child,’ I heard someone say as we crossed the threshold, and I suspect that is part of it’s charm. It is, in effect, a smarter version of Waterstones, where you’re hard-pressed to find a copy of a book that hasn’t been signed by the author. It feels welcoming and organised, with a sense of occasion from the grand architecture and history. But the displays often highlight books that are merely popular, rather than having been chosen for their specific merit. You could find pretty much anything in here. But you couldn’t pick the book at random and know it had been lovingly chosen by the bookseller. Indeed, the book sellers all seemed to be stuck behind the tills, with little customer engagement.
It was a stark contrast to The Society Club, a speakeasy-come-bookshop tucked away in a corner of Soho. ‘Would you like a cocktail?’ was our greeting as we entered this quirky corner building. We probably would have done, but we had a hard afternoon of book-buying ahead. We settled for tea, served in proper china cups. The club’s dogs settled too, curling up on our feet in a very sociable manner. The books surrounding us were a mixture of old and new, with the emphasis on the perennial Soho concerns of sex, alcohol and film. There was a piano in the corner and a vast mirror reflecting light back into the room. Browsing for books was impeded a little because the shop was in the middle of hanging an art exhibition high on the walls. It felt very Soho.
By now our stomachs were grumbling. We’d planned to eat at Books for Cooks‘ renowned cafe. But a struggle with the transport system (who knew there were two tube stations at Paddington?) meant it was after 2pm by the time we made it to Ladbroke Grove. We charged into Books for Cooks – and found the cafe at the back empty and shut. Disaster! As anyone in the know will know, BfC’s cafe has early hours, and anyone arriving much after 1pm will be left hungry. We charged out to the cafe next door and returned an hour later, full of food and ready to browse the enormous selection of recipe books. It’s very much a specialist shop – I was able to satisfy my quest for a cookbook on Scandinavian food – but not the easiest to navigate. Only one of the two friendly assistants was actually tall enough to reach the books at the very top of the shelves. We’ll have to wait till another day to report back on the food.
We were flagging a little. I consulted the map and coaxed my lieutenants onwards. Lutyens and Rubenstein was just minutes away, I assured them. And it was worth the detour. It’s a beautifully-designed little shop, with nooks upstairs for children’s books and a cosy basement downstairs. In the main body of the shop, the serene assistant was interested in our day-long quest – and told us she’d begun her career in Heywood Hill, many years previously. We felt we’d come full circle. There were so many books I would have liked to take home. Lots of small presses – I noticed Pushkin Press and some quirky illustrated and graphic novels – and the same feeling we had in Heywood Hill, that these books had been chosen by hand, with care. I dithered over my choices, eventually plumping for a Rory Stewart travel book I’ve fancied reading for a while.
We parted company. And yes, that’s only five bookshops, but I was heading for my final one of the day – the splendid Idler’s Academy in Westbourne Grove, where I was preparing to take to the stage with a ukulele for the first time. But that’s another story.