I HAVE LOVED BOOKSHOPS ever since I can remember. In my teenage years, I used to haunt the shelves of Foyles, a multi-storey bookshop in Tottenham Court Road. The store is named after its founders William and Gilbert Foyle, who established their business at Station Road in Peckham in 1903. A year later, they moved it to Cecil Court, an alley near Leicester Square, which still contains several bookshops. By 1906, Foyle’s had a branch on Charing Cross Road, which is where I got familiar with it.
In the second half of the 1960s, Foyles was a very well-stocked bookstore even if it seemed a bit confusing to its customers. There were separate departments specialising in various topics distributed over at least three floors. I discovered soon enough that behind the bookshelves in some of the departments there were yet more shelves, and these contained second-hand and remaindered books often at reasonable prices. It was amongst these hidden shelves that I found a rather useless but picturesque road atlas to Bulgaria, published in Bulgarian, and a wonderful detailed street map of East Berlin, “Haupstadt der DDR”. This map carefully avoided mapping the city’s contiguous West Berlin. It gave the impression that East Berlin bordered the edge of an area of uninhabited desert.
The language department was very interesting. It stocked books on every language from A to Z. It was there that I discovered a copy of “A Short Albanian Grammar” by SE Mann, published in 1932. This hardback book with dark green board covers was priced at 15 shillings (i.e. 75 pence). I was particularly excited to find this volume as my interest in Albania was already becoming quite well-developed. However, 15 shillings was way beyond my budget in 1968. That year, I began studying biology for the A-Level examinations that had to be passed to enter university. It was then that a chance to obtain this book arose.
During the first year of the A-Level course, I entered the school’s Bodkin Prize biology essay competition. I wrote a long treatise on the life of the woodlouse. This was my first ever bit of serious research. I visited the Science Library, which was then housed in a part of the then disused Whitely’s department store in Queensway. There, I translated a long article written in French about the reproductive system of the woodlouse. From what I can remember, the woodlouse can reproduce asexually, a process known as parthenogenesis. I was awarded the second prize. The only other contestant was my classmate Timothy Clarke, whose older brother, Charles, was to become Home Secretary between 2004 and 2006. Tim won the first prize.
Thesecond prize was 15 shillings to be spent on books. I asked the school to spend that money on procuring me the copy of the Albanian grammar book in Foyles. To my great annoyance, my choice was turned down and I was asked to choose again, making sure that at least one book was a hardback, because it was to be embossed with the school’s crest. I chose two books. One was a costly paperback on genetics and the other was the cheapest hardback I could find. To this day, I still do not possess a copy of Mann’s book.
Returning to Foyle’s, let me tell you about its payment system, which resembled, so I was told, the system adopted by shops in the Soviet Union. First, you had to find a book you wished to purchase. Then, you took it to a desk in the department where it was shelved. A shop assistant took the book and wrote out a paper bill. Next, you had to take the bill to one of the few cash desks in the shop. After queuing, you parted with the correct amount of money and then the paper slip was stamped. Following this, you returned to the department where your book was being held and queued up again to exchange your stamped paper slip for the book, which you were then free to take away. This laborious payment system survives today in the government run khadi (home-spun materials) shops in India. These old-fashioned shops, often smelling of moth balls, are picturesque to say the least.
Foyles was bewildering to the newcomer stepping off the street. Like the tiny alleyways in Venice, it was a great place to lose your way. However, if a customer was looking for something specific, this was not helpful. So, quite sensibly, there used to be staff standing near the entrance to help customers find what they were seeking. Some of these no doubt poorly paid staff had poor command of the English language. On one occasion I heard the following:
“May I help, Sir?” asked a young lady with a strong Eastern European accent.
“I am looking for choral music.”
The assistant hesitated and then pointed at the escalator while saying:
“Please try the engineering department.”
That was long ago, back in the late 1960s.
Foyles moved out of its home on Charing Cross Road in 2011 and occupied another building a short way from it on the same street. Its current premises occupy part of the former St Martin School of Art, where my mother used to work in the sculpture studios in the 1960s. I no longer shop at Foyle’s but remember it fondly.
Picture by Tarquin Binary from Wikipedia