Book Hunting in Britain

My Favorite Bookstore
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Nov. 8 2005 7:03 AM

Book Hunting in Britain

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Click here to see a slide show. The best bookshop in the world is Tindley and Chapman at 4 Cecil Court, an all-antiquarian pedestrian lane in the West End, just off Charing Cross Road, the old center of the London book trade. There are some other fine shops nearby, including the well-known Bertram Rota and Peter Ellis (as well as some that cater to people who collect things that aren't worth collecting, like Stephen King novels). Let me try to explain why James Tindley's little store is the best.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

The shop is a small square room filled with first editions (plus a basement filled with odds and ends). Sitting at the desk will be James Tindley, cocking an owlish eyebrow while smoking, reading, or kibitzing with a steady procession of oddball potential buyers and bedraggled would-be sellers. The subject of his acerbic comments might be the admirable orneriness of Evelyn Waugh's letters, the neglect of some forgotten poet, or the inflated price of early Martin Amis. Tindley seems to have soaked up not only the modern literary corpus but its biographies and bibliographies as well. He disgorges tidbits from behind a haze of bluish smoke in a series of smirking and curmudgeonly asides. The general themes of this elliptical banter are that famous writers are nasty, books are overpriced, and few things are really worth reading.

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Atmosphere will get you nowhere without selection, and it is here that Tindley really excels. His shop is small, but the stock is extremely well-chosen, without being excessively curated or fussy. James and his charming assistant Sophie don't seem to have any books in the shop that they don't at least respect. As a result, you can browse pretty much everything in the place in well under an hour, including Tindley's unsalable collection of the minor late-Edwardian poet and playwright John Drinkwater, which reposes in a seldom-touched glass-front bookcase in the basement. Over the years, I have found more books I've wanted—including several of the otherwise nearly unobtainable prewar first editions of George Orwell—in Tindley's little store than anywhere else. I have never walked out—or gotten through one of his increasingly infrequent catalogs—without buying something.

When you find something you want in Tindley's store, you should buy it without haggling, because his prices are consistently half—or less—of what any of his neighbors would charge. Tindley likes to sell books, not sit on them, and he doesn't check prices against the Internet as a matter of principle. Last time I was in, I bought the American first of Pale Fire for £35 ($63). Around the corner, I saw the same book in the window of Simon Finch, a fancy Mayfair dealer, in a slightly cleaner dust jacket, for £1,000 ($1,800).

James leaves Sophie in charge, and we adjourn to his regular wine bar, where we lunch on rabbit kidneys, fries, and a bottle of Côtes de Provence. (Despite the much-touted improvement of British cuisine, you still do best with a Hogarthian diet—offal, cheese, apples, and ale.) We chat about the Internet, which Tindley naturally deplores. His view is that the Web takes the magic and mystery out of the book business. Using Abebooks.com, which scours listings for 70 million books from 13,000 dealers around the world, you can find almost anything you are looking for with unimaginable ease. But on the Web, you never find what you're not looking for, which is what invariably happens when you walk into Tindley and Chapman.

After lunch, we return to the shop and Tindley proves his point by emerging from the basement with a full run—eight issues—of a magazine called Polemic, which was published in England between 1945 and 1947. Little intellectual magazines, such as Partisan Review and Horizon are a special interest of mine, and Polemic, with covers designed by the British artist Ben Nicholson, is one I've never seen before. Almost every issue has the first publication of one of Orwell's essays, including "The Prevention of Literature" and "Second Thoughts on James Burnham." This is something I would have never thought to look for on Abebooks and probably wouldn't have found if I had. The price? James makes a gesture that indicates he has no idea and says £40 ($70). I leave with that, an early V.S. Naipaul first, and the first collected edition of Hart Crane's poems.

After lunch, I pay a call on the bookshop that immediately becomes my second-favorite. Situated on Berkeley Square in Mayfair, in an even grander townhouse than Shapero's, Maggs Bros. has been run by the same family since Dickens' day, when it was founded by Uriah Maggs. Ed Maggs, who is as beloved within the fraternity as Shapero is disliked, is the eighth member of his family to run the shop, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2003. Portraits of his mutton-chopped and waistcoated forebears line the staircase.

Maggs, who greets me in the modern department on the second floor, is himself a rather Dickensian character. Shambling, kinetic, and mustachioed, he is also a near-ringer for Basil Fawlty. His conversation is a steady barrage of self-deprecating puns and wisecracks. "Nature abhors a vacuum," he tells me, apologizing for the mess of volumes, papers, and junk covering every available surface in his office, including the floor. "But a bookshop really abhors a vacuum." Now in his 50s, Maggs tells me he got "sucked back in" to book-dealing in the late 1970s, following a halfhearted attempt to escape by becoming a rock 'n' roll star. A recent reminiscence he wrote of the shop is titled "Forgetting to Change the Filter in the Gene Pool."

Maggs Bros. is as high-end as a bookshop gets. You will find Maggs' "by appointment to her majesty" sales slips tucked into volumes in the best collections around the world, and the store is famous for—among other things—buying, on behalf of the late Paul Getty, the most expensive book ever sold—Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, printed by William Caxton in 1476, for £4.6 million ($8.3 million). But Maggs Bros. defies the stereotype of fusty antiquarianism in every way. This might be the jolliest bookstore I've ever been in, more like a comedy sketch on four levels than a proper business. As soon as I arrive, Ed—probably the most Internet-savvy of British book dealers—forwards the day's Slate "Explainer" on why corpses float facedown to his colleagues. As he introduces me around the various departments—military history, natural history, maps, autographs, English books, etc.—further speculation on the topic ensues. Carl Williams, who specializes in 1960s literature and psychedelic drugs (books about them, that is), tells me he's a fan of David Edelstein's. You expect to find Slate readers in many places these days, but not in a tableau vivant from Queen Victoria's reign.

"Come, let's have a look at the Black Cupboard!" Maggs exclaims, bounding up the stairs from his office. The cupboard, which is, in fact, a white nook under the stairs, is the archive of the company's disasters, including a series of badly forged Oscar Wilde manuscripts it bought and sold in the 1920s and records relating to the notorious Edwardian thief and forger T.J. Edwards (a Maggs unwittingly laundered some of his excellent fake literary pamphlets). Ed has played detective on both these cases and is not shy about castigating his forebears for greed and gullibility. But what, he wonders, would those ancestors think of him for "having sunk hundreds of pounds of their capital in Gershon Legman's first book, the privately printed Oragenitalism, or indeed of investing several thousands in John and Yoko's typescript poem that comprised several dozen iterations of what I should really call the F-word.

Maggs had a number of items I coveted, but his books are priced not to move too quickly. Ed speaks with pride of his willingness to provide shelf space for rare items for 15 or 20 years before selling them. I have a feeling that they might still be available if I change my mind.

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