by M Hamilton Mack (1870-1935)

On Wednesday Sue T discussed the life and some of the work of Louise Mack, Tasmanian-born novelist and poet, journalist, war correspondent, and public lecturer. In the following article from 1925, Mack gives us a glimpse of London’s book shops of her day.

A French man once said to me, “No wonder England still lives up to the reputation of being ‘a nest of singing birds,’ when young poets have such a wealth of bookshops from which to hatch.” Perhaps there is no other city in the world that provides a more varied selection of bookshops, with so great a number of new and old classics and valuable editions to be discovered on their shelves. To those who know, it is a magic land where you may search and find any book on which your heart is set.

The morning is the time to buy books. A fine spring morning, when after long dreary winter months of rain and fog, the sun once more condescends to dry the puddles in Kensington Gardens, and allow the babies to got out of their prams without making their nice white socks and shoes all muddy.

Walking along Piccadilly from Knights-bridge, Sotherby’s shop is on the left; rich opulent editions of histories and classics in gorgeous hand-made bindings sleep luxuriantly in the window, with a choice selection of prints and engravings. Those are books for some vast, dim library, in a bishop’s palace; books to be treated with veneration, climbed for on step ladders and read on heavily carved desks.

On the opposite side is Hatchard’s, got up so comfortably as a lounge, with all the new memoirs easy to hand for some ambitious young diplomat to glean sufficient information for his next dinner party. Here is the place for elderly duchesses who write their reminiscences of three reigns in two volumes, and expect an intelligent guest to have well appreciated their prehistoric scandals.

Though I like Hatchard’s for its convenience, and general air of pleasing and obliging one, I deplore the absence of peace so necessary to the buying of books. Too many well-known people walk in and out, and meet each other unexpectedly, and stay for long chats. Men who have been away for years shooting lions in Africa, meet fags they had at Eton, and get noisily introduced to their daughters.

“The Times” Book Club in Oxford-street is like this, but on a very much larger scale. Any book on any subject you may wish to borrow will be instantly procured for you. “Yes, sir, five minutes, and the boy shall go round to the publishers in a taxi.”

But for a lending library, I prefer Mudie’s in New Oxford-street, which still seems to me to keep a charming air of disapproving Victorianism in its untidy shop. Some novels it actually censors.

Mudie’s seems typical of Bloomsbury to me; of the time when rich merchants lived in the now unfashionable squares, and their daughters smuggled home forbidden books in their muffs – the Bloomsbury of Thackeray, where Amelia brought Becky Sharp home to stay for the holidays, and Colonel Newcome lived in Fitzroy Square.

But, in between Hatchard’s and Mudie’s lie the real and vital bookshops of London. On both sides of Charing Cross-road they invite you to loiter. They range from unpretentious shopfronts with a few odd volumes on a shelf outside, to the extensive Foyles, with its enormous selection of second-hand books and music. Room after room is stacked with books, and you may spend the whole day on a step ladder without fear of let or hindrance.

Beaufort’s is an attractive shop, devoted to les fines arts et belles lettres. There are beautifully illustrated books on the ballet, and coloured drawings by Bakst, woodcuts by Paul Wacho Picasso, and funny little painted wooden figures of Karsavina and Massine, and other Russian dancers. The early poems of Oscar Wilde and Earnest Douson, with first editions of George Moore, may be found here, mixed up with stray copies of the Yellow Book and the Savoy, with the best Aubrey Beardsley drawings within.

On the other side of the road is a new and very up-to-date place with no name, but believed to be run by some well-known authors. It is decorated dramatically with French blue walls and yellow painted book shelves, and all the books seem to have gay covers.

It is a jolly, clean, obvious place, where you know what you are buying, and you pay the price marked on the cover, and it is all well lit, with no dirty corners or rubbish about. There is always a good selection of American books, and the latest young artistic or musical periodicals, which seem to die and vanish as suddenly as they bloom.

A little way up is a very old shop, untidy and very dark, and rather dirty. Greek philosophers lurk languidly on its shelves, with mouldy copies of Fielding and Swift, and eighteenth century poetry – all muddled up with hundreds of out-of-date theological books. I always wonder who can possibly buy the latter, for there is nothing so depressing as theological argument. Yet it is an intriguing shop, which lures and holds you, by its very lack of effort. I always enter with a spirit of adventure, since I once found a first edition of the poems of John Donne at the back of a shelf of “Vasari’s Lives of the Painters.” To guard these treasures there is generally only a young boy eternally making toast at a gas stove in the murky back office, for the owner seems to be always out, busily buying up the libraries of deceased country parsons, I suppose.

Turning out of Charing Cross-road through a mean slum on the right into Longacre, you will find a distinguished-looking foreign book shop at the corner. Fascinating Russian and Swedish books loll together, secure in the knowledge that they will only be desired by the very cultured or homesick few. German books of science are plied ponderously, making with their generous bulk a good foil to the light French and Italian novels. An enormous Don Quixote spreads to view the orginal Dore engravings, so dark and sinisterly full of the romantic mystery of Spain.

On the other side of Oxford-street, in Fitzroy-square, are the Continental paper shops, with their windows gay with “La Vie Parisienne” and “La Gouriere,” where you can get a French, German, Russian, or Spanish daily paper.

Across Southhampton Row, and at the end of Devonshire-street, is the little poetry book-shop run by Harold Monro, full of every sort of modern poetry, from Thomas Hardy to the Sitwells’ brilliant fireworks. It is rather out of the way, for Devonshire-street has come down from its eighteenth century elegance to almost a slum; but the houses still retain a beauty and dignity of line under their dirt and decay; inside some of them are generous shallow staircases and panelled rooms; while in one studio I know of there boasts a little powder closet and an Adams fireplace. The poetry bookshop is very unpretentious, but it is always warm, and benches are there for you to sit on while you make up your mind between Alice Meynoll or Aldous Huxley. On every side the Chapbrook laughs gaily with the arresting Rutherston covers, and long rhyme sheets with woodcuts in mauve and green hang on the walls; and always is there a sympathetic atmosphere of kindly appreciation for youthful inspiration.

Going further east to Farringdon-road and Shoreditch are the second-hand bookstalls, but they are in a class absolutely on their own as regards patrons and position, and not at all to be treated briefly at the end of an article.

M Hamilton Mack, “My quest: London book shops“, The Sydney morning herald, 11 Jul 1925: 9.