An American booklover trolls the ancient bookshops of the English capital

by Dale McGowan




He was something right out of Dickens, eighty years if he was a day, a healthy halo of white hair atop each ear, magnifying glass in hand, and a scowl that made it known I had interrupted him with my inaudible question.


“Are the upper levels open?”  I repeated, my thumb waggling toward the velvet rope draped seductively across the stairs.






“No, they’re closed just now.”


My expression dropped.  I’d traveled nearly an hour to visit Fisher & Sperr, the legendary Highgate bookseller.  The ground floor was marvelous, if a tad conventional – gorgeous antiquarian sets, floor to ceiling – but I’d come to know, after fifty-two London bookshops, that the real treasures are rarely at street level.  And my dog-eared copy of Book Lovers’ London assured me that Fisher & Sperr had four levels…including two on the other side of that rope.


I was nearing the final days of a six-week stay in London, the first leg of my sabbatical leave from a small American college.  The salary of a small college professor doesn’t much encourage a passion for book collecting, but I’d eaten beans on toast for a year and pulled together a few quid to fund the book adventure of a lifetime: six weeks crawling the secondhand bookshops of London, the most thoroughly book-mad city on Earth.


I’d prepared, in an appropriately bookish way, by reading books about books, from Anne Fadiman’s scrumptious memoir Ex Libris – Confessions of a Common Reader to the riotous A Pound of Paper – Confessions of a Book Addict by Australian “book adventurer” John Baxter.  I uncovered essays on the readerly passions by Flaubert, Eco, Emerson, Orwell and Montaigne.  They inspired, informed and delighted me – but none had divulged the secret of getting past that rope.


My tormentor, sensing my disappointment, asked, “Would you like to try out the back room?”


Ohhh, yes.  Back rooms are good.  He nodded and, rising with effort, unlocked a sliding door behind his desk, revealing a small warehouse of a room packed with lovely old volumes.  I wiped my chin, shouted my thanks, and entered the sanctuary, wish list glowing warm in my pocket.

Many of the fifty-five titles on the List already sat on my shelves, mostly shabby book club editions or paperbacks, while others were needed to fill gaps in my two primary collecting areas:  philosophical essays and satire.  These are my intellectual joys, two human ventures dedicated to dethroning our conceits and challenging our most comfortable convictions – one with reason, one with humor.  The List included the comedies of Aristophanes, essays of Lucretius, Bacon and Montaigne, Don Quixote, Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, anything by Voltaire, Hume and T. H. Huxley, and much more – a sizzling, centuries-long examination of what it means to be human.  If I played my cards right on this trip, thousands of hours of luscious and provocative reading lay scattered through the years ahead.


I could find the whole kaboodle back home in paperback, of course, by poking computer keys while sipping a latté and stroking a tabby cat.  But I’d come to London to swim in the tide of old books that has lapped the pavements of Bloomsbury and Charing Cross for centuries – printed with care, bound in hardcover, and gently worn by their passage from hand to hand across generations.  So no paperbacks, but neither the museum pieces of gilt and tooled leather, pages uncut, valued by past owners only for the pretty wallpaper of their spines.  I want ragged pages, jotted exclamations – evidence of fellow readers long past.


My first find was a solitary volume of Hume’s History of England (1796), had for a relative song at a book market under the brooding arches of Waterloo Bridge.  Still bleary with jet lag, I’d found it in five minutes, then set it down and picked it up again several times.  It wasn’t on the list, you see…though Hume certainly was...only one volume out of eight, though…but 1796, my word… No. I walked away without it, decisively, the very picture of self-control – only to return at a run three minutes later, panting with fear lest someone had snatched it up.  I had my first catch.


And oh, the fishing was fine.  Each morning I’d leave the flat with my Underground pass and a list of shops, returning in the afternoon with Ovid’s Art of Love or Lucretius On Life and Death, or a signed copy of the breathtaking Spoon River Anthology.  Many were on the list; others had simply leapt into the boat.


By the end of the second week I could enter a store and know at a glance if it was my kind of shop. Yards of immaculate leather soldiers standing at attention in gilded piping, sorted carefully by author and subject?  Not for me. I began to crave wild disorganization, the wilder the better.  There’s no mystery to be had in the petrified ranks of the well-ordered antiquarian shop, no heartstopping surprises, no obscene bargains. I want teetering piles, shelves three volumes deep, books stuck up and forgotten in the two inches between the dusty casetops and the ceiling. It was in Walden of Camden, just such a fabulous shipwreck of a shop, that I found an 1812 edition of Bacon’s Essays, stuck between a cookbook and a history of hats.  And Books Fatal To Their Authors was not likely to surface among the groomed shelves  of  Jarndyce

I began to crave wild disorganization, the wilder the better. I want teetering piles, shelves three volumes deep, books stuck up and forgotten in the two inches between the dusty casetops and the ceiling.

















in Bloomsbury.  That one came to light in Keith Fawkes, a tiny shop in Hampstead so densely packed with piles of unsorted flotsam that an ill-timed turn in the middle of an aisle in an overlarge sweater might well spell the end for everyone within the avalanche radius.


The search is the thing, really.  Fresh from the discovery that 84 Charing Cross – perhaps the most celebrated bookshop address in the world, thanks to the eponymous book and film – was now a Pizza Hut, I stumbled across Leicester Square to Henry Pordes and nabbed a gorgeous three-volume first edition set of Huxley essays.  The fabled Mr Pordes himself ambled up behind me and, spotting my List, asked if he could help me to find anything further.  I declined politely, the search being the thing.


“I only ask,” he continued, “because our complete stock is listed on the website, if you’d like to check there.”


I blinked, swallowed, then stammered something unintelligible, completely thrown.  I felt at once foolish and a trifle miffed.  Was I really being too quixotic about this whole thing?  Of course it’s all on the website, but the suggestion that I go there made me a titch nauseous.  Imagine hailing Odysseus’ ship from a passing Jet-Ski to let him know there’s a lovely ferry to Ithaca he can catch just around the corner, full dinner service, every hour on the hour.  It’d save a lot of hassle, sure, but am I so obtuse in thinking there’s some intrinsic worth to the odyssey itself?


At which question we are reunited with a certain middle-aged professor nosing about in the back room at Fisher & Sperr.  Unlike the front, whispering softly of Dickens and Pope, the back was singing of the owner’s more eccentric tastes.  What might the upper levels be singing, I wondered – at which point I overheard the proprietor dashing another customer’s hopes (“Sorry?”) for access to those upper realms.


I re-emerged at last with Old Kensington, a novel by “Miss Thackeray,” which I presented to the warden.  He placed it ceremoniously on the blotter, opened the cover with great care, then lifted the huge magnifier and held it above the penciled price, raising and lowering it by millimeters like a boy burning ants.


“Eight pounds fifty, looks like,” he said at last, then paused suddenly in mid-breath.  “The upper floors are open now.  Interested?”


Ah, so that was the trick.  A demonstration of my seriousness had been required before he’d admit me to the Holy of Holies.  Miss Thackeray had gotten me past the bouncer, God bless ‘er, and I found myself ascending a spiral wooden staircase lined with random dust-covered marvels.


And holy it was, four rooms of gasping secondhand ecstasy beyond anything I’d seen in London.  An entire wall of signed first editions.  A 1677 edition of the complete works of Thomas Aquinas in twenty massive vellum folios.  A full leather first edition of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  A stunning illustrated Metamorphoses.  And, most astonishing of all, the complete works of Aristotle in a tooled vellum edition from 1597, endpapers covered in handwritten notes in Latin.


I descended the stairs at the end of another hour and placed the half dozen lovelies I could afford on the counter before my benefactor.  He looked up at me, reached for his magnifying glass and asked a silly question, one that I knew signaled the end of our pas de deux.


“Have fun?” he asked, eyes twinkling, as he drew the books toward him.