Thursday, October 18, 2012

London Bookstores

I was stopped on 5th Avenue the other day by a woman who asked me if I was from London -- she saw I was carrying my cotton canvas tote bag from Daunt Books.  I explained that I'd recently visited London, and she said she'd been living there -- "around the corner from Daunt Books, one of the best bookstores in the world" -- for three years and was now back in New York and was feeling homesick.  I completely understood how she felt, not only because I have London very much in mind these days but also because Daunt really is one of the greatest bookstores I've ever been to.

I'm referring to the store's Marylebone High Street location, at numbers 83 and 84 near the Baker Street Tube stop (there are three other outposts in the city).  [And by the way, Marylebone is one of those English words that trips people up. I once worked with a British fellow from London who told me it was pronounced MAHR-luh-bone but I have also heard it pronounced MAHR-luh-bun.]  Anyway, Daunt is a dream of a bookstore, with a beautiful room in the back of the street level floor that's lit by a skylight and is devoted to travel books!  It's a kind of heaven, and the books are arranged in my favorite way, which is that all of the books about each country -- fiction, cookbooks, biographies, travel guides, maps, memoirs, etc. -- are all found together.  There is an entire section devoted to Corsica!  (If you don't know this yet, Corsica is one of my most favorite places on the planet -- see an article I wrote for the travel section of The New York Times, 'Along the Road of the Artisans,' 17 October, 2004.)

I bought some books published by British imprints, as well as a copy of Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge, originally published in 1935 and now brought back into print by the publishing arm of Daunt. It was hard to leave this store, but it was also great to visit Heywood Hill [10 Curzon Street, Mayfair], a 75+ year old bookstore that deals in both new and old books.  I bought a copy of The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters Between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill, 1952-73.  When Heywood Hill left to serve in the British Army in 1943, he turned over the running of the store to Mitford.  She actually owned a share in the store, and later she famously wrote to Hill, "doing business with friends is let's have a divorce."  There is one of those standard blue, commemorative plaques outside the store, indicating that Nancy Mitford worked there from 1942-1945, as well as one of the Royal Warrant plaques (more details about this later).   I also loved going to Stanfords [12-14 Long Acre, Covent Garden], one of the world's greatest travel bookstores.  It's been here since 1901, and reportedly has the world's largest inventory of travel books under one roof.

This time, I didn't get back to one of my other favorite London bookstores, Books for Cooks [4  Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill; the only reason I didn't go is because I was actually trying to avoid the annual Notting Hill Caribbean Carnival].  I also really wanted to go to Foyles [113-119 Charing Cross Road, Soho; did you know that the name of the great British series, 'Foyle's War,' was inspired by this bookstore, which won the UK Bookseller of the Year award in 2010?] and John Sandoe Books [10 Blacklands Terrace, Chelsea], and Primrose Hill Books [134 Regent's Park Road]...but I simply couldn't fit them all in.  And I nearly lost my  mind when I discovered the London Bookshop Map: so many bookstores, so little time!

If it seems like I spent all my time in bookstores, I really didn't (though I wouldn't have minded!).  More unique London retail stores up next.  

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