Skip to main content

Romancing old books

By December 25, 2018No Comments

Source : The Tribune

The bookshops on London’s Charing Crossroad offer a chance to explore some forgotten treasure troves

“In a second hand bookshop are the horns of the altar where all the outlawed thoughts of humanity can take refuge” — John Cowper Powys, 1938

On my bedside bookshelf, there are no new books. Only old books, like my father’s first buys of R K Narayan, A J Cronin, Boris Pasternak or a PG Wodehouse are to be found. Then there are some very old editions of Reader’s Digest’s ‘Condensed Books’ series — each comprising three to four choicest book selections. Their yellowing pages, worn-out spines and my father’s inscriptions in now fading ink are warmly comforting.

The romance of cosy, little independent bookshops where every nook and cranny is groaning with venerable leather-bound tomes and dog-eared out-of-print paperbacks is uncomparable to the endless displays of big chain stores. And if you’re such a seeker of old books, then your best destination is London’s Charing Crossroad.

Just five-minute walk from the legendry Trafalgar Square, along this street are located a large number of legendary second-hand book shops with their collections of old, antiquarian, out-of-print rare books or first editions. The first stop. along the street, you come across is called ‘Any Amount of Books’ — and the boastful name of the shop is exemplified by the stacks of books spilling over to the street from inside, dumped in bins, each priced at one pound! Even busy commuters tarry a while  to rummage through the stacks to browse, read some passages or just savour the delight of running their fingers through those old tattered spines, yellowing pages with a musty smell.

As you enter the shop, there are only shelves and shelves of books. It’s a small shop with whole lots of volumes on vintage poetry, history, crime and travelogues and then there are the leather-bound volumes of classics and biographies. But the best part of the shop is to go down to the basement — minding your head through the narrow, winding wooden staircase with creaking boards! As I manage to slink through it, I espy a very old man with unkempt grey hair so deeply engrossed in browsing some great find, that I don’t have the heart to disturb his literary reverie.

In the contemporary section, there is, of course, a row full of Harry Potters and other bestsellers. I ask Mark, the young friendly shop manager if he would have any R K Narayan — and sure enough he pulls out a copy of the Guide! I feel immensely proud of not only my favourite writer but also that his Malgudi is alive and buzzing in London.

Just walking further up on the street, there is another popular second hand book shop, ‘Henry Pordes Books’. Its shining blue and white shop signage contrasts with the rather sombre-looking brown stone façade of the building where both these two stores are located. Henry Pordes has been a famous name in the book trade for more than 50 years as a bookseller, publisher of learned periodicals, academic titles, Jewish books, as well as a wholesaler of remainders.

Just a little further is yet another great second hand book shop, ‘Quinto & Francis Edwards’. The Francis Edwards part of the name refers to the first floor of the shop, containing esoteric, rare, first editions and volumes from the estates of the famous-now-deceased English aristocracy. The Quinto part is second hand basement of the store that boasts a huge selection of fantasy, history, poetry, literary theory and crime.

There is one book that in particular fascinates me, Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin, published in 1857 — a time when India was engulfed in its First War of Independence. The other reason, of course, is that as an architect, drawing is my professional tool. I timidly ask for the price — and it’s just £90, but even that is much too high for me. I hesitatingly try to bargain, and to my utter delight, a discount is extended! That tempts me to buy another book, a 1902 edition of Poems by Robert Browning, which has beautiful engravings inside. Now they both sit proudly displayed, encased in glass box, in my study. But before I leave, I ask them if I could just see the oldest book that they had in their collection? They proudly oblige by pulling out a 17th century copy of the Holy Bible.

These bookshops offer endless exploration, serendipity and a chance to discover some hidden, forgotten, treasure trove. Even, if you come out empty handed, they’re peaceful refuges epitomising the quintessential ethos of London — a city of book lovers.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.