A new dawn for London booksellers

Independent booksellers have for many decades been as lambs to the slaughter – at the mercy of a ravenous industrial economy that eats small family–run businesses for breakfast. But something is changing.

The creeping homogenisation of towns and cities by late capitalism is invariably considered as a blight on the aesthetic. And the inevitable unmooring of traditions in society is customarily followed by an outbreak of nostalgia, to which the costume drama-loving British are prone. A hankering for the lost culture of evening newspapers, typewriters, records, penny farthings, Cadbury’s chocolate wrapped in tinfoil and suitcases without wheels. There is not much left that looks, feels, tastes or even smells the same as it did in the 20th century.

However, some independent booksellers have always managed to keep a place of their own, tucked away in the obscurity of narrow city lanes and around the back of provincial high streets.

The most enduring little bookshops are often discovered serendipitously and radiate with all the forgotten appeal of bygone times; knowledge of their whereabouts is often passed through subcultures, like oral poetry and secrets. For the humble bookshop, which is dependent on its antiquated charm, distinctiveness really matters.

The rise and rise of the stronghold of property developers and urban planning fat-cats today are an incubus that is constantly looming over the bookseller. In fact, the number of UK bookshops have fallen this year to below 1,000, its lowest ever, and the media are busy informing the world that print is an endangered species.

If you live in London you might have ambled through the quaint thoroughfare Cecil Court, between Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane, and noticed the rows of veteran bookshops with large bay window displays that look as if they haven’t been dressed since the 19th century.

  • Author and bookseller Paul Drummond at Pleasures of Past Times [Martin Cervenansky]

A Brion Gysin dream machine rotates in one of the windows; above it a beautiful hand-painted sign reads ‘David Drummond’ and ‘at pleasures of past times’. Bookseller and author Paul Drummond took over the business from his late father, who was an actor and opened the shop in 1967. The small space is teeming with iconic collectables. Its wall shelves are tightly-populated with titles, authors and artists all belonging to the 1960s-80s psychedelia and beat generation, although with some Harry Potter thrown in.

“We are representing what London was. We’re selling stuff that you could have bought 40 or 50 years ago just around the corner, but that’s all now been wiped away by developers and coffee shops and brand outlets”, said Paul’s colleague, Nick Brown.

At the back of the shop, Nick sells records with Clare. He has been running his record business, Intoxica, since 1993 and teamed up with Paul around three months ago. The two have known each other for 30 years and belong to the generation that boomed between the ’60s and ’80s, when the Kings Road in Chelsea was deemed the hippest road in the world.

Paul says that books have become devalued, but since incorporating the record trade the business is bouncing back. He calls it a symbiotic relationship and is surprisingly enthusiastic about new developments: he thinks that urban regeneration has had some positive returns for specialist bookshops.

The Society Club, The Best of All Possible Things. Image courtesy of Martin Cervenansky

The Society Club, The Best of All Possible Things. [Martin Cervenansky]

“Cecil Court is getting more relevant as London gets more diluted and boring. Kings Road is now gone as a destination – we hear it often from our visiting tourists, there is just nothing down there. Camden is fairly washed out compared to what it used to be. Portobello Road is gone.” railed Paul. “It’s an act of defiance keeping a shop like this going but we’re tough little motherfuckers and we don’t give up,” he quipped.

“Yeah, we’re the last central outpost in London,” said Nick.

In the ecosystem of publishing and writing the role of the bookseller is elemental. Independent bookshops sustain local interests and offer different ways for communities to participate in diverse cultural activities. In other words, the kind of books which are sold in bookshops is a reflection of its community. And if this assumption is true, then how well one knows and serves one’s community is, for a bookseller, the key to a prosperous business.

It’s a ten minute walk from Cecil Court into the purlieu of the young bohemians. From the outside, The Society Club looks like an intimate Soho coffee shop. And to get inside you have to ring the door bell.

Behind the bar a jaunty barista fixes tea, coffee and cocktails and the mellow notes of 1920s jazz standards cushion the geriatric surroundings, which are partially lined with cluttered bookshelves.

Inside The Society Club, Soho.  Courtesy of Martin Cervenansky

Inside The Society Club, Soho.
[Martin Cervenansky]

“We’re a members club also, but during the day we’re open to everyone. We’re a bookshop, predominantly. However, people can come and have a tea or even a cocktail. Come 6pm we draw our curtains and close the doors to non-members and we’re a literary members club,” says George Packe-Drury-Lowe.

George runs events at The Society Club; he is utterly amiable yet looks fittingly Rimbaudesque. He works alongside his friend Babette Kulik, who, with her assorted troupe of beige-coloured dogs, owns the business. There are about seven or eight other members of staff including Chip, the resident compère.

“We’ve been a members club since April 2014. We attempted it before but didn’t get the formula quite right. We weren’t established enough and people didn’t trust who we were. At first we were all a bit hesitant about whether to do it or not,” explains Babette.

The charming George Packe-Drury-Lowe at The Society Club in Soho  Courtesy of Martin Cervenansky

George Packe-Drury-Lowe at The Society Club in Soho
[Martin Cervenansky]

Members pay an annual subscription of £175 which gives them access to the club and £175 worth of books. “It works well because people know that they are getting a lot back for their membership. Every Friday we have poetry evening, which is great fun. A lot of poets and writers of all ages turn up. Without sounding too cliched, it is very much a community here and we are a bit of a family. There is quite a strong bond among the members,” says George.

Many of the existing independent bookshops in London are now looking for ways to reinvent their business model, such as expanding into coffee shops, using loyalty cards, renting out extra floor space and selling other cultural goods. These methods seem to be working. Even the large chain bookstores are now having to think creatively as online retail pushes to the fore.

Oxford-based Blackwells, a family-owned business since 1879 and which is now a chain, has reported its first profitable turnover of £400,000 in 2014, after spending an entire decade in the red. This came after a radical transformation of its business. The company plans to make its employees shareholders, mimicking the John Lewis model.

As the lives of private individuals continue to take on a more homogenous character in their digital forms, bookshops are becoming ever more valued as subcultural destinations; a preserve of the socialising public which, in its myriad forms, must retain the quality of distinctiveness. They are powerful agents which assert themselves against the solipsistic nature of online and digital devices.

The current furore over the lifespan of print and the livelihoods of traders of print is generally morose. But those who buy books tend to want to own more and more. Like works of art, books have an aesthetic which makes them highly collectable and showable. They are not just for owning but also for sharing, swapping and prattling on about in public. As George from The Society Club puts it, “there will always be a place for analogue in a digital world.”

Photography by Martin Cervenansky