Friday, December 19, 2014

The Greatest Bookshop In the Whole World!

I did my training in London and after spending five years there as a penniless student, it’s good to go back every so often and visit old haunts with some money in my purse.

One of my trips is always to Foyles, the greatest book shop in the world. I shall arm wrestle to the ground anybody who says otherwise.  It stands at the top of Charing Cross Road and when I first went there with my huge list of medical text books I had to buy, we students were sent down the old rickety rackety wooden stairs to the dark basement where copies of Gray's Anatomy were stacked high into the ceiling, Gangon's Text Book of Medical Physiology (unreadable!) filled the far wall and every variation of clinical methods manuals and anatomical atlases were piled higgledy piddledy at my feet   I remember tip toeing my way down the narrow maze like path between the books, hoping that  I  would find my way out.
Maybe hoping I would not.
The smell was  marvellous.
It has changed a lot now.

It had been an independent bookseller since 1903, and is always just called 'Foyles (founded by brothers William and Gilbert Foyle).  They failed their entrance exam to join the  civil service but being enterprising chappies they sold off their redundant text books – and so a legend was born.
By 1906 they opened the shop at 135 Charing Cross Road and they stayed there until 2014 when they moved to the premises I visited last week. As you will have noticed, it moved along the same street.
Charing Cross Road is famous for book and  bookshops, as seen in the film 84 Charing Cross Road. Denmark Street is off it – famous for  musical instrument shops and sheet music. Charing Cross Road changes its name a few times as it goes up to Euston Station. At the Tottenham Court Road part it was always  full of specialist hi fi shops in the good old days of turntables, speakers, amps, tweeters, woofers, ....fade the list to sepia..... but now it has fallen foul to the advancement of large chain coffee shops ... spit anger teeth gnashing....

In 1930 Christina Foyle, daughter of the founder William, started her famous literary lunches that have included  Margaret Thatcher, Prince Philip, General de Gaulle, General Sikorski and the Emperor Haile Selassie.
In 1945 the control of the business passed to Christina who didn’t seem to share her dad’s golden touch. She fired staff on a whim and refused any modern intervention- such as tills.  I have memories of wandering about being confused about how to pay for my books which weighed a ton as I carried them for A to Z. The payment system was that customers had to queue to collect an invoice for the book, queue to pay the  invoice  at another counter, then  queue again  to collect the books which hopefully were the ones paid for. We Brits are very found of queueing so nobody really cared.
According to come sources, the books on the shelf were arranged via  publisher. Not topic. N author. Not popularity. it was probably a minor miracle that anybody found the book  they went in for, but imagine the delights to be found on the way.
I would happily wandering round for hours, ( free entertainment) reading a bit of this and that while on my way down the wooden staircase.  "Imagine Kafka had gone into the book trade,” was  a famous quote about the shop at the time.  It was famed for these anachronistic practices  and it's rather a shame that the new shop is bright and shiny, well organised and sensible. The staff are still rather eccentric. Nothing  surprises them. As I was being served, the old gentleman at the till was asked if they stocked 'Waiting for Godot.' In Finnish.
'Over at the window, third shelf down.' He didn't blink.Didn't miss a beat.
I think the new shop opened  on 7th June at no.107, just a few doors down from the old shop. The sticky out sign is just the same so you can't miss it. I’m not sure if it still holds the records for its 30 miles of shelf space but it should.  It still has the greatest range of  a books under one roof of any book shop in the UK. It was voted  national book seller of the year in 2013.
The new place has succumbed to the onsite coffee shop trend. But it’s a Foyles and not branded, it does soup and hot rolls. It does tea in a pot with a real leaf dangler. The café is high on the fifth floor and if the seating is full you can wander up to the sixth and eat your lunch next to the grand piano. The lift has opening doors at both ends as the floors of the shop are off set. It causes panic in those  occupants that are facing the wrong door as the lift announces 'third floor' and they are staring at a brick wall, presuming the lift had got stuck and they will stay there for eternity. slowly rotting away with a good book to read.

I meandered through crime looking for a few folk I know, I spotted this. And then this

 and this…

And then I spotted this...

 A book by the Doc Holliday of Scottish writing. You have to witness the coat.  Chris Dolan a multi talented type who I try really hard to dislike him but I can't because he's a nice bloke. He’s a screen play writer,  song writer,  tv writer and general all round smart arse who has just produced a crime book.
 He does redeem himself from all this cleverness by admitting that crime writers are a great laugh and much more fun to hang about with than these intellectual, beardy types.

 Being a smart chappie he produced this little montage and he’s singing the song himself. He is a Glaswegian so I invite you to revel in his dulcet tones. He smokes about twenty Woodbine a day and can still do a pretty shifty ten k.
I will get him to guest blog in the future. I did ask him for a quote as to why he has joined the ranks of 'The Happy Writers' and here's what he said.

He says it took him a long time to try his hand at a genre he loves – Crime.
"Despite what people think, Crime is harder than ‘literary; fiction, or political plays. It’s a deep craft… It speaks about the world and morals and life as it’s lived, but it has to be accurately shaped, profoundly considered. The plot, the characters, the created world. I don’t know if I’ve quite got there yet, but I love writing my heroine Maddy, and with luck and hard work the next novel might be better’.

( That's a bit like Picasso saying he'll be a better painter when he learns to stay within the lines.  And yes, his Fiscal heroine Maddy does wear peerie heels.)

The montage is .... well see for yourself. It's all about his book. 
Once watched, I defy you not to start thinking what a montage about your last book would be like....

Caro Ramsay 9th December


  1. Caro, you inspire me: to visit Foyle's, to write soon about The Strand Bookstore. And to screw up enough courage to post this:

  2. An alternative title for this, Caro, could be to quote the variation on the classic Boris Badenov of Bullwinkle fame line as employed by Annamaria's Strand Bookstore owner: "Curses, Foyle'd again!"

  3. Caro, i won't arm wrestle you because you'd win but I'd venture our counterpart or close second might be Powell's in Portland. But then I'm sure Annamaria will trump it with The Strand. Love the Finnish answer! I've only been in this new Foyle's and wish I had gotten to the original where you bought your textbooks...sigh!.

  4. Fabulous video Annamaria. ( I wonder how often they hurt their knees doing that!)
    I'm off to google The Strand bookshop....