Christopher Howse

Notes on...London’s secondhand bookshops

Notes on...London’s secondhand bookshops
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After seeing the Dalai Lama receive an award at St Paul’s Cathedral, I thought I’d look in at some secondhand bookshops around the British Museum on my walk home. They had all gone.

Gone the neat shop in Museum Street where I bought David Knowles’s Great Historical Enterprises; gone the untidy shop in Coptic Street where I first bought a Cresset Press edition of Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Gone the smart end of the market, Frew Mackenzie (next to Cornelissen the artists’ colourmen) where two big folios of the beastly Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time, 1723, 1734, chipped at spine ends, was the equivalent of the bargain box. Gone Bondy Books, home of miniature books (less than 3in tall), on which the proprietor, Louis Bondy, had written a rather larger volume. Blame the online Abebooks for all this if you like, or blame us who use it.

Almost alone in those parts remains Jarndyce, at 46 Great Russell Street since 1986, run by the agreeable Janet Nassau and Brian Lake, whose interest in books with strange titles engendered his own Fish Who Answer the Telephone, and other Bizarre Books (such as The Common Teasle as a Carnivorous Plant, 1922; Briefs Calmly Considered by ‘A Layman’, 1826; The Big Problem of Small Organs, 1966; The Romance of Leprosy, 1949; and so on). The speciality of Jarndyce is 19th-century books, but I once rejoiced to find there a copy of A Complete Vindication of the Mallard of All-Soul’s College, 1751.

Further west, a shop that once seemed too smart is now a welcome oasis: Sotheran’s in Sackville Street, established in London in 1815. For long I took the view that, good though their stock was, it was too dear for me. I did regret not buying three volumes quarto of St Teresa in a 17th-century English translation, but my contact was generally limited to meeting by accident one of their staff also bargain-hunting in the cellar of John Thornton’s remarkable shop in the Fulham Road (gone, now, all gone), and buying book-oil in little brown, ribbed bottles. Somehow the EU has interfered with the oil, making it coagulate. But now, if a friend is looking for a birthday present that looks personal, I recommend a visit to Sotheran’s, with happy results.

In Charing Cross Road, Any Amount of Books and Quinto continue the tradition of old trade hardbacks, odd volumes, incomplete sets, ex-library and whatnot. They are not as bad as that sounds. One ex-library item came from the Admiralty, the two small folios (rebound in serviceable Service buckram) of Chambaud’s English-French, French-English Dictionary (1773), a window into another world.

On the same side of the road, on the way to where Smith’s snuff shop used to be, still thrives Henry Pordes, divided into well-chosen secondhand or antiquarian vols in one half and well-chosen remainders — history, art, that sort of thing — in the other. The people there know books, and even read them.