I kissed my family goodbye and sent them around the corner to the British Museum armed with a scavenger hunt to keep them busy and slipped in to the London Review Bookshop. It was blissfully quiet. Attached was a cake shop (rather than coffee, a reminder I was in England) where all I heard was the occasional rattle of a spoon. I started the day at Westminster Abbey with hordes of people walking over the graves of unknown famous people; the din was headache inducing. Next stop was Top Shop with my daughter. After two hours of shopping with scads of people and booming music, I met my husband at the entrance and practically burst into tears. I felt the silence of the bookshop envelope me and start to restore my equilibrium.
Here’s the thing I discovered about English bookstores, they are as silent as libraries. The booksellers don’t chat you up. They’re friendly and ready to help when asked, but they won’t find you in the aisle and start a conversation. The patrons also don’t talk to each other, even the ones who know each other. One evening on ‘the telly’ we watched a comedy show and the skit was about making noise in a bookstore. The audience was laughing, but we didn’t get the joke. In the States, the primary purpose of an independent bookstore is to match the perfect book with every customer, most of which is accomplished via conversation. While I assume the British booksellers have the same goal, it doesn’t seem to be achieved through conversation.
As the name indicates, the bookstore is the retail outlet for the London Review of Books. Of course all of the books reviewed are available, along with additional books recommended by the (silent) bookseller, plus many more. I love this store. The literary fiction is fairly high brow. The most noticeable American presence was a large selection of books published by NYTRB. It was a little disconcerting to walk into the fiction section and find so many unfamiliar books. I asked the bookseller if there was a British novel that he felt flew under the American radar. He immediately walked over to Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Reading the synopsis on the back cover, about a man who lost his memory and uses a large settlement to recreate snatches of visions, intrigued me. I bought it but decided not to read it on the plane. It feels like a book that has an edge, maybe a bit of a creep factor, and I have enough flying issues.
The selection of non-fiction was outstanding. I keep hearing that non-fiction sells better than fiction. While not disputing that fact, the set up of many bookstores seems to emphasize fiction. Not so at London Review Bookshop. Here the numerous shelves of current affairs, history and political book shelves are upfront, the first one a visitor encounters. Upstairs, the space dedicated to plays, poetry, literary criticism, and essays far outstrips most stores I’ve visited. I recommend clicking over to the website to peruse the various topics. Even better, check out the Reading Guides on a variety of topics, one is even entitled Quiet, Please!
14 Bury Place
London, WC1A 2JL
Tel: 020 7269 9030