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Death of the bookshop
February 2, 2009 5:26 AM   Subscribe

London's Charing Cross Road was once a renowned as destination for bibliophiles. However this has changed as a number of bookshops have closed, the crime specialist Murder One being the latest. The Guardian looks how the street has changed between 1940 and now (flash).

Meanwhile it's civil war in Hay on Wye...
posted by fearfulsymmetry (30 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Foyles is still open on Charing Cross Rd though. And with the allegedly ghastly Christina Foyle gone has had a much needed modernisation. My other half worked there 15 years ago and although she made decent money (salespeople earned commission, and she worked in the medical books area which is heavy with expensive, syllabus required books) she said Christina Foyle ran it in like a fading tyrant.

On the one time I visited Hay-On-Wye I was very disappointed with the bookshops. I could find nothing to pique my interest, could discern no order among the piles of crap that might help a customer browse for anything, or even start making sense of all the books, and found the staff very uninterested in the business of, y'know, selling.

As far as I could tell, a lot of the town's booksellers were hoarding vast amounts of unwanted, not very special books for the sake of it. Now probably even the most obscure, deathly dull tome can find one buyer at some point, but a website like Abebooks does the job a lot more efficiently and easily.

Even the most avid bibliophile is a customer first and a bibliophile second and to expect them to ignore the great strides taken forward in other areas of bookselling, from the pile'em high bestseller approach of Waterstones et al to the long tail of Amazon is to push back against the tide with an old mop.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:59 AM on February 2, 2009


Bibliophiles are a threat to the orderly working of society. They want to teach all sorts of perverted ideas to our children.
posted by orthogonality at 6:01 AM on February 2, 2009


.
posted by mlis at 6:04 AM on February 2, 2009


Sad. I used to get the latest releases of Bill James & Ian Rankin from them via mail order in the mid-90's, instead of waiting for the US editions to be released a year later. Whenever I visited London, always visited Murder One, as well as the now closed Crime in Store.
posted by mlis at 6:04 AM on February 2, 2009


There seems to be a Charring Cross Road/Drive/Avenue in many midwestern towns in the US. Was this name (once) aspirational, like Harvard, College, or Cambridge as street names in suburban areas?
posted by vkxmai at 6:17 AM on February 2, 2009


I went to Murder One last week, not realising that it was about to close until I saw the gaps on the usually packed shelves. I've found it a useful resource, though frustrating at times. I haven't found the staff very approachable, and the lack of space made the shop hard to manoeuvre in and not that appealing for browsing. The prices were also an issue for me. When I've bought books there paperbacks have mostly been £6.99. New copies are sometimes, though not always, significantly cheaper on Amazon, and second-hand copies are often much cheaper from Amazon Marketplace. The Murder One catalogue is very useful, though, and I hope the staff who are taking over the postal business will be able to continue this.

As for the other bookshops on Charing Cross Road, particularly the second-hand ones - I want to like them but often they seem suspicious of customers, books are in poor condition and the cellar areas of some of the shops can be really horrible, both for customers and books.

There are some great bookshops in Hay-on-Wye but also some depressing ones, such as the Castle Bookshop where large numbers of books are left outside all the time, or were when I visited a couple of years ago.
posted by paduasoy at 6:17 AM on February 2, 2009


I bought AudioVision in Foyles fairly recently and thought I paid a premium for it, but couldn't get it anywhere else on the road. Looking at the Amazon link that's about what I paid. So theres still goodness to be had.

on a vaguely related note, Turnkey, ill fated music shop of Charing Cross Road (as for me the road is as much about its shiny music toys as it is its bookyshops) also died (last year). I used to work for them and it didn't surprise me.
posted by 6am at 6:21 AM on February 2, 2009


Is the movie 84 Charing Cross Road any good? Man, I gotta join that mail-order DVD thingmie.
posted by steef at 6:26 AM on February 2, 2009


Huh? The UK is now without a specialist crime and mystery bookshop? What about the two branches of No Alibis? Oh yeah, they are not in London so they don't exist.
posted by Tapioca at 6:28 AM on February 2, 2009


Thanks; that was really interesting.

The Murder One chap in the Guardian video says that 84 Charing Cross Road is now a Chinese restaurant, but I could have sworn it was in fact a Pizza Hut (and that technically there is no number 84 any more, as the retail space has been merged into one larger lot). Perhaps I'm wrong.
posted by hot soup girl at 6:29 AM on February 2, 2009


I forgot to mention: there is a business model for specialist booksellers, even if they can't continue to pay the rent on Charing Cross Rd. In 2003 Politico's in Westminster closed down its physical store and moved to web-only retailing.

Done well, specialist booksellers can turn the same tables on the big, multi-genre players that some still do in physical retailing: offering an accessible, edited choice with first rate help and customer service.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:37 AM on February 2, 2009


The Pizza Hut on Charing Cross Rd is now a Pasta Hut. Although it still says "Pizza Hut" on the inside. Way to go, branding gurus.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:38 AM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hot soup girl speaks aright, to the best of my knowledge: it is now combined with its next door neighbour into a restaurant, but I forget the name. Chili's, maybe?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:41 AM on February 2, 2009


I miss the days when dealing with booksellers (or librarians) generally meant meeting someone with extensive knowledge and passion for a range of topics. Today, often as not, the people who help you in a bookstore are cashiers with little interest in their field and little incentive to develop an interest, given what they get paid.
posted by billdyszel at 7:28 AM on February 2, 2009


.

Sad to see Murder One going - it's where I used to get all my James Ellroy.

Though, No Alibis rocks! - if in Belfast go there and ask for Dave Torrans - he'll offer ya a biscuit and cup of coffee - always interesting things going on round there.
posted by jettloe at 8:18 AM on February 2, 2009


I still buy books there, it's not dead yet.

There's a huge Borders there that I think may have taken some trade away. SF store "Forbidden Planet" is just round the corner on Shaftesbury Avenue. There are still three second-hand shops, and the remaindered shop Bookends often has some good stuff.

Be interesting to see what effect the recession has. It might kill it off. On the other hand, it might actually raise demand if people start buying second-hand instead of new, and if the crippling rents start to fall.

The second-hand shops could definitely do with some better customer service though. You don't see many other surviving shops with signs up forbidding you to walk round with a bag...
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:21 AM on February 2, 2009


That is, Charing Cross Road is not dead yet. Murder One is deceased...
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:22 AM on February 2, 2009


That's sad to hear. Murder One was on my list of places to visit when I finally get to London.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:35 AM on February 2, 2009


My very first trip to Europe, my very first day, I arrived in London. Looked at the Tube map, and chose to go to Charing Cross almost randomly, just because the name was vaguely familiar.

When I got out it was magical. All these old bookshops, it reminded me of the curio shop in 1984. Wow... this really is Europe, look at all this history right here, in front of my eyes!

I left Poland when McDonalds opened just down the highway from me. The past is being eaten up so fast now, makes me feel old.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:03 AM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Murder One was a great store, although I used to prefer the old premises on the other side of Charing Cross Road, as they were more spacious. I wasn't keen on the basement after they moved.

When I was in town ten days ago I made a point of visiting and buying a few books. It's one of the few places I knew I'd be able to pick up the latest John Lescroart without ordering it. And although I can buy any book I want online, there's nothing like browsing in a specialist bookshop for a lazy hour or two and finding a few gems that I wouldn't have come across online. Murder One had a fantastic true crime department.

And yes, MuffinMan, Foyles is greatly improved. I'm old enough to remember the ancient, Soviet-style system where you'd queue to give your book to the sales assistant, then you'd queue somewhere else to pay then you'd have to queue up again to collect your book. It could take an hour on busy days just to pay for the book. But Foyles has always had a bit of magic that no other bookshop (Daunt, perhaps, excepted) has, even then.
posted by essexjan at 10:57 AM on February 2, 2009


The Murder One chap in the Guardian video says that 84 Charing Cross Road is now a Chinese restaurant, but I could have sworn it was in fact a Pizza Hut (and that technically there is no number 84 any more, as the retail space has been merged into one larger lot). Perhaps I'm wrong.

I thought that 84 was actually across the intersection, the site where All Bar One was and now the Mediterranean Kitchen is. Maybe it depends on where you count the numbers from.

That whole stretch of road is valuable real estate, and ever increasing in value. It's remarkable that the bookshops have held on so long, and perhaps just realistic to expect them to move along.
posted by outlier at 11:39 AM on February 2, 2009


I had a housemate who worked in Murder One, which (as the Guardian article doesn't say) was also a scifi and romance bookshop. Out of the three, the romance readership was apparently by far the most demanding, difficult and downright weird.

Ditto on the poor quality of the secondhand stores on Charing Cross Road. The great Driff Field thought so too.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:06 PM on February 2, 2009


Sad—I was there almost forty years ago (and loved Foyle's despite the Soviet-style system) and am sorry to hear it's gone the way of New York's Fourth Avenue.

The great Driff Field thought so too.

What the hell kind of Wikipedia article is that? No dates, no reliable-looking information, the only source an article by Iain Sinclair? For all I know, Sinclair made the guy up. I'm surprised the deletionists haven't aimed their death-dealing rays at it yet.
posted by languagehat at 12:32 PM on February 2, 2009


was also a scifi and romance bookshop.

The scifi section that was in the basement was a separate concern, I think. Murder One moved across the road a couple of years ago and the sf bit vanished then.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:43 PM on February 2, 2009


The problem with niche bookshops is finding you're too niche for them. Murder One, for example, annoyed me by having almost no impossible-crime fiction. If they'd bought up all of the cheap-as-hell John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson books on Amazon and then sold them on to me at a sizeable markup, I'd have been in there twice a week. As it was I'd walk in, look wistfully at the 'C' and 'D' shelves, get creeped out by the massive 'True Crime' section, and wander out. I once asked them for some further recommendations in the genre, and they had nothing besides some faint second-hand praise for a French guy's rather weak short story collection.

I think there's at least one half-decent secondhand bookshop on the Charing Cross Road, but I forget the name; it's the one with crates of odd one-pound books sitting outside. Bookends is hideous, though. The only decent remainder bookshop I know of any more in London is halfway down Chiswick High Road.
posted by Acheman at 12:57 PM on February 2, 2009


I absolutely adore Foyle's, and make a point of going there every time I'm in London, usually on my way home so I end up paying over-weight charges with my purchases.

We used to have bookshops to rival it in Glasgow, but the past decade has seen a massacre among our bookshops, so now we're reduced to a Borders packed with 12 rows of crime and a Game, or a Waterstone's. I'm likely to move to London this year, and easy access to Charing Cross Road had been a big plus. Boo hiss to it losing its lustre.

(Foyle's also has the best computer section I've ever seen, which is notable)
posted by bonaldi at 5:43 PM on February 2, 2009


.. loved Foyle's despite the Soviet-style system

Feudal more like, particularly their hiring practices. It was a horrible place, twenty years ago (my experience doesn't go back forty years) – but now, it's great. I particularly like how they took Silver Moon and Ray's Jazz under their wing.

The great Driff Field thought so too.

What the hell kind of Wikipedia article is that? No dates, no reliable-looking information, the only source an article by Iain Sinclair? For all I know, Sinclair made the guy up. I'm surprised the deletionists haven't aimed their death-dealing rays at it yet.


Sinclair's a reliable source, unlike Stewart Home who definitely makes people up. Not much is known about Drif Field, but you can get the Guides easily enough. Ironically, mine came from one of the Charing Cross shops that he detested. There was some press a few years ago about the Soho Housing Association, who own some of the shops on the north side of the road, raising their formerly peppercorn rents. Quite reasonably, they took the view that they weren't in the business of subsidising second-hand bookshops. Give me the booksellers under Waterloo Bridge, or some of the shops around the British Museum, any day.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:50 PM on February 3, 2009


I'd recommend Cecil Court, just round the corner from CXR. Although it's much more on the collectable end of the book market.

There are also interesting bookshops around the British Museum, including a second branch of the pound-bin bookstore. I always liked the Book and Comic exchange in Notting Hill - at least until I went to sell some books there, was given £10 cash/£20 exchange for a big bagful, then saw one of them marked up at £5. I was never a fan of their music retailers, but always thought the book exchange was less of a swizz...
posted by mippy at 3:23 PM on February 3, 2009


Sinclair's a reliable source, unlike Stewart Home who definitely makes people up.

I was kidding about not believing he existed, but seriously, that article is a joke. Source it better or delete it. The guy isn't that significant.
posted by languagehat at 5:50 PM on February 3, 2009


seriously, that article is a joke. Source it better or delete it. The guy isn't that significant.

It's appropriate to the enigma that is (was?) Driff. Seriously, not much is known about him, and the article does a good job of reflecting that. Your best, if your curiosity is unsatisfied, would be to seek out one of the Guides via abebooks. They're fairly hilarious.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 11:59 PM on February 3, 2009


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