DOG-EARED - FROM MUMBAI TO LONDON
WORDS BY DIVYA SEHGAL AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAUL HICKIN
I read over 20 books last year, and I devoured more than half of those on the Kindle. I usually find a book recommendation on the internet, check to see if the book is available in London’s consortium of libraries, log onto Amazon to see if they have a paperback and eventually go back to my faithful e-reader, buying the book with a single touch. In completing the whole digital process, I’ve missed the trip to the local bookstore, looking at their “top ten books of the month” list and paying with actual paper money. But clearly not missed it enough, and convenience has always won.
My earliest memory of a second hand “bookshop” is of my maternal grandfather walking me down Perry Road in Bandra, Mumbai to a roadside stall of books where he used to buy me comics and abridged versions of children’s classics. It soon became a yearly ritual for us. Every summer, he’d take my brother for some chicken lollipops near the local park and me to this non-descript kabadiwala or junk dealer who used to sell tattered books donated by someone in the neighbourhood. I won’t go into the clichéd and hackneyed reasons for why every book lover is attracted to the old, yellowing pages of their favourite books.
Second hand bookstores have been a favourite since then, and I’ve found myself veering towards used books, whether they’re in libraries or in shops. There might be a dozen Crosswords and Landmarks in India, but they won’t replicate the charm of Blossoms in Bangalore. And no Waterstones in the UK (whose Twitter pages I adore) holds a candle to the independent second hand bookshops of Charing Cross Road. In my early days in London I’d go to Quinto Bookshop instead of the multi-storeyed Foyles and down to its basement that held a wide range of second hand books, from the usual suspects to the niche variety of astronomy and homeopathy. In the days I had time on my hands between job applications and interviews, the bookshops of Charing Cross Road were my refuge in an otherwise unfamiliar London.
I won’t go into the clichéd and hackneyed reasons for why every book lover is attracted to the old, yellowing pages of their favourite books.
I recently decided to go back. Nothing much has changed except the iconic Foyles buildings has moved a few doors down, the old building and its empty shelves a mere shell of what they used to be. The sex shops are still there. The music shops are still around the corner. And the three second hand bookshops are battling the challenges laid down by their digital counterparts.
There were about six sales in the 15 minutes I spent inside the antiquarian Quinto bookshop. I was very aware it was the weekend in one of the most popular areas not only in London but also in the world, so I struck up a conversation with the proprietor. Yes, the footfall was just the same as it has been in recent years. No, he’s not afraid of a complete digital takeover. Yes, Quinto is definitely here to stay much like Foyles is, and perhaps more so. Their collection of the Arabian Nights books is impressive, and they have more than enough first edition books that have their own charm to collectors.
Surprised to hear that Quinto wasn’t a dying breed, I moved to Henry Pordes Books, another second hand and antiquarian bookshop next door. It’s a maze of a shop with corners at weird angles, always surprising even the most oft-visiting customer. It felt as if I’d landed in someone’s living room. There were at least four couples standing in pairs, having conversations surrounded by bookshelves. No one was browsing or asking the owner for any rare finds. It was an almost social occasion, and I wondered if these were regulars and had bumped into each other or couples that came together and decided to have an impromptu chat right in the middle of the small entrance. The wizened owner told me what I had expected to hear: the footfall had significantly reduced but he wasn’t worried. It helped that they were located in such a central part of Central London, but he also had faith in the kinds of books they sold. And he was right. As long as the sight of yellowing pages and the smell of dusty books is appealing, these old second hand bookshops of Charing Cross Road are here to stay. Oh, there’s the old clichéd and hackneyed lines again…
Charing Cross Road is home to some of London’s best-loved bookshops, including Foyles, and second hand bookshops.
Quinto Bookshop, 72 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0BB. Phone: 020 7379 7669
Henry Pordes Books, 58-60 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0BB. Phone: 020 7836 9031