I believe I alluded to bookish doings abroad in my last post … and yes, the trip to London was amazing, at least from this bibliophile’s point of view. Don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that I volunteer in the rare book library at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. Well, to shorten a long chain of events, I got to know a London antiquarian book dealer through that post.
A visit to Maggs Bros
I’d been thinking about crossing over to the “other side” of librarianship — perhaps working for a dealer rather than an institution. So last week I went to meet my London contact, Julian, to learn about the antiquarian book trade and tour the shop — Maggs Bros. Ltd, right on 50 Berkeley Square in the heart of Mayfair. Maggs, which has been a prime mover in the antiquarian book trade since 1853, is situated in a magnificent Georgian townhouse, complete with mews, stable (this is where you’ll find the military history department) and a basement-level kitchen with a working wood stove (though it is not actually used by the denizens of Maggs).
Hope in the literary arts renewed by a visit to Bloomsbury Auctions
After the mind-boggling (all the books, autographs, illuminated manuscripts!) backstairs tour, Julian and I set off for an auction on Maddox Street. Bloomsbury Auctions was selling off the spectacular book collection of Erica Spender — and to see some of the prices that these old volumes of architecture and natural history fetched was enough to renew my hope for the value society places on the literary arts. Clearly, love for the book is not dead — at least not in London.
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I never tire of a good bookshop
Some other stops in my travels: Henry Sotheran Ltd., an antiquarian book shop on Sackville Street in Picadilly. This shop has a lovely, warm, walk-in-out-of-the-rain feel to it — and quite an interesting collection of children’s books. I also visited Quaritch’s, tucked away on Lower John Street, also in Picadilly — a marvellous museum-like feel, albeit a museum dedicated to the history of the book.
Hunting for obscure books took me to Persephone Books
And I had to stop in at Persephone Books, on Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury. Alexandra, in order processing, turned me onto this little shop, which republishes forgotten or obscure works, mainly early twentieth-century British women writers, in paperback with charming endpapers.
Inner workings of the antiquarian book trade
This all makes me think of Helene Hanff and her dealings with Marks & Co. While my friend at Maggs gently reminded me that 84 Charing Cross Road is perhaps an over-idealized portrait of the workings of the antiquarian book trade (those were not his exact words — in fact, I believe ‘rubbish’ was used at one point), it’s still a lovely story. And a quick and emotional read. I tear up every time. . And yes, all that’s left of Marks & Co. nowadays is a sad, brass plaque.
If you like the idea of the correspondence between Hanff and F.P. Doel but want something with a little more teeth in the details of the trade, The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street might be what you’re looking for. This is the collected letters between Nancy Mitford (see The Pursuit of Love post) and Heywood Hill, owner of the antiquarian shop at 10 Curzon Street. A wonderful look at life as lived by European literati.
So all of this is to say that I enjoyed myself immensely while in London, made some good friends, visited lots of lovely book shops and will likely be making another Pond crossing soon. Perhaps in August for an exciting internship opportunity. I’ll tell you more as I know it!
Elizabeth Frengel is a curator of rare books at The University of Chicago Library Book Arts and History