London Book Junket: Quest for
the Out-of-print Rarity
Does the idea of a book buying spree
and a wonderful city visit sound enticing? London offers book haunts that
seem strangely out of place in a reader’s world dominated by comfortable
cappuccino-and-armchair bestseller chain stores and internet browsing. No
city in the world has more specialist and secondhand bookshops than London,
providing a fun opportunity to browse for that hard to find, out-of-print or
antique leatherbound book.
I found a guide- the Book Lovers’
London edition- explaining the many book options in the city, and found
descriptions of new and secondhand shops, both specialist and generalist, as
well as book fairs, book markets and charity shops.
I decided to see for myself, avoiding
the monoliths like Books etc, Borders (same ownership), WH Smith and
Waterstones. In London, that still leaves hundreds of independents, stores
that offer some of the most enjoyable book shopping in the universe.
I started with book markets- the name
itself is an enticement to browse, for bargains, for the titles or authors
that are familiar, for the leather-bound tomes of classics, for the black
and yellow detective collection that one always finds at such places. I
discovered that there are at least eleven book markets operating on a
regular (at least once a week) basis. I chose to visit three of the
best-known markets: Southbank, Portobello Road and Camdem Road.
Southbank Book Market is a “romantic”
outdoor market devoted almost exclusively to books, open every day 11am- 7pm
under the Waterloo Bridge and continuing along the Thames in a wide
pedestrian open space. This is where Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts fell in
love in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” but the day I visited it reminiscent
only of the funeral. The morose damp weather had kept all but one vendor
away, and it was rather sad to see his displayed books amidst a sea of
locked wooden storage trunks. It was too depressing to even browse.
I walked across the Waterloo footbridge
to Embankment tube station and headed off to Notting Hill and the famous
Portobello Market. This Saturday market is mostly indoors, with scattered
bookstalls accessible through gallery entrances off the Portobello Road and
Westbourne Grove and down cluttered alleyways, like interconnecting rabbit
warrens. Luckily I had my Book Lovers’ London guide to indicate where the
booksellers were hiding.
Many of the stalls are specialized in
specific types of books, from history to rugby to fine and applied arts, or
just first edition novels. Most have a selection of leatherbound volumes
that are sometimes purchased for their decorative value without concern for
the content. The overall presentation is quite varied, ranging from
dishevelled chaos to a system that would make Dewey proud. I made a few
small purchases, travel books from the early 20th century.
From Portobello I took the tube Circle
line, changed at King’s Cross, and took the Northern Line to Camden Market
(open Saturdays and Sundays). Again, the book market stalls were hidden in
the myriad of corridors offering New Age / Punk / Afro-exotic apparel and
accessories. I was lucky to have my handy guidebook indicating the target
locations. Times had changed, however, and some establishments mentioned in
the guide had closed down, leaving only Black Gull and Walden Books
surviving. Both were excellent finds, however, with a huge selection of
multi-disciplinary used books and very knowledgeable and friendly
management. I bought three books, including a great find on wine walks in
I spent the next day at the heart of
the used and specialist bookshop district, along Charing Cross road from the
National Gallery to Oxford Street. Some are located along quaint pedestrian
streets like Cecil Court –a book lover’s heaven- and nearby art specialist
stores off of Picadilly. There are stores so filled with stock that step
ladders are provided so customers can reach the upper shelves. Typically
bargain tables are placed outside. Some have rare volumes locked behind
glass fronted cabinets. All shops I visited had very helpful staff who
usually knew if Mark Twain’s Travels in Europe was in stock - though if you
are just browsing, they will leave you on your own.
I picked up a poster and some postcards
at a shop specializing in films and performing arts, and some out-of-print
fiction on Cecil Court. And then I found some more travel books which I
Finally, I looked at the large number
of book fairs held in London during the year, allowing booksellers who may
simply have a mail order service from their homes across England to have a
stall at these fairs. For example, monthly book fairs are held at the Hotel
Russell in Russell Square that are free and very popular. And there are
frequent annual events, like the Chelsea Book Fair in June, Performing Arts
Book Fairs in April and October, the Travel and Exploration Book Fair in
March and the Antiquarian Book Fair in June that attract hundreds of
booksellers. Truly a book lovers paradise, a trip to London offers so much
more than the mainstream chain store giants.
If you don’t live in London, the
biggest problem with the surplus of book buying opportunities is the sheer
weight of carrying all those good buys back home. Shipping is an
alternative, especially given the reasonable cost of many second-hand books
(and of course the price of rare books can be negotiated). I planned ahead,
bringing a large empty suitcase that was filled upon departure.
Information About Book Shops, Markets
-Book Lovers’ London, by Lesley Reader.
Metro Publications 2003
-many book fairs are sponsored by the PBFA:
The Internet Public Library
uk used, out-of-print and antiquarian
us focused website:
Will Snyder is a free lance journalist
living in southwest France.
Phone: 33 675 025 149
Photographs by Will Snyder
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