The cover of December 5th’s New Yorker shows a clerk in a bookstore—at least, the word BOOKS is painted on the plate-glass window—pointing out to a customer the sole shelf of real books, near the floor and easy to miss. The prime selling space offers caps and calendars, e-readers and reading lamps, T-shirts (Shakespeare), paperweights (Twain and Shakespeare), and shopping bags (Hemingway, Woolf, and Joyce).
Last week I visited the antithesis of the New Yorker‘s nightmarishly bookless bookstore: Sims Reed Rare Books in St James in central London.
St James is a district within the City of Westminster—London being made up of two cities, two royal boroughs, and 30-odd ordinary boroughs—filled with upscale shops and traditional gentlemen’s clubs. If you need antiques, art, or indeed antique art, it’s a fine place to browse; if you need bespoke (US: custom-made) shirts or even bespoke shoes, someone in St James can provide them.
The gentlemen’s clubs of St James I know only from books, of course, not being a gentleman and not, even as a lady, being the sort the British call clubbable (the class of person to whom clubs would offer membership). If I have anything approaching a club in St James, it’s the London Library, a private lending library, where I can sometimes be found in a red leather chair in the Reading Room with Granta or the Sewanee Review. But I could read about Bertie Wooster, who belonged to the Drones Club, or about Sherlock Holmes meeting up with his brother, Mycroft, at the Diogenes. When Dorothy L. Sayers’s detective character, Lord Peter Wimsey, tells his man Bunter that he’ll be dining at his club, he could mean the fictional Egotists club or he might mean the Marlborough, not only a real club, but a favorite of King Edward VII. Lord Peter’s (fictional) entry in Debrett’s lists his pedigree and his clubs, but also reminds the reader that “bibliophily” was one of his hobbies, and that he was the author of Notes on the Collecting of Incunabula—which brings us back to the subject of rare books, as incunabula are early printed books (especially those printed before 1501).
My visit to Sims Reed was sparked by a much later volume, hardly more than a pamphlet really, and published only in 1917. Two Stories was the first book issued by the Hogarth Press, which began with one small hand-operated machine on Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s dining-room table. She set the type, he operated the press itself, and they shared the work of stitching the pages and adding Japanese grass-paper covers. The copy I went to see fell just slightly out of my price range at £18,000 (not quite $28,000), but I wasn’t there to buy, only to do research for an article.
Sims Reed specializes in books on art, architecture, and related subjects, which often call for extra-large layouts, so just inside the door I ran into an impressive case of enormous books. People write about the smell of old books and the way light falls on matured leather spines with gold-stamped titles, but there’s an extra intrigue in books (or anything, really) of extraordinary size, whether monstrous or miniature. By luck, the first title that caught my eye, on a red leather spine that might have measured a full three feet, was Architectural Drawings by William Burges—a coincidence, because it was Burges who brought me to Sims Reed the first time, almost a dozen years ago. On that visit I was after a copy of the only book-length scholarly work on Burges, the most expensive book I’ve ever bought, at £175. There’s a copy on eBay at the moment, listed at £450 ($700), but mine wouldn’t be worth nearly so much, because it shows the wear of lots of reading.
And in any case I was in the shop this time in pursuit of Woolfs. I put Burges back on the shelf and followed my guide downstairs to a room without floor space, only book space. That the walls were lined with bookshelves almost goes without saying, but a huge table piled with books took up most of the room itself. My host brought out Two Stories from a cardboard sleeve. The grass-paper of the red-and-white covers wasn’t meant to last through years of handling—it’s sold as wallpaper—and had frayed, but the condition of the cover matters rather less in such an important work. There was the imprint of the Caslon Old Face type as Virginia Woolf had set it, with the eccentric punctuation and rather nontraditional spacing of a novice trying to right- and left-justify the lines; there were the darker and lighter characters where Leonard Woolf inked the type unevenly, in part because he was famously parsimonious and didn’t want to waste a drop. And if the book weren’t rare enough itself, the woodcuts alone—one noticeably crooked on the page—by Dora Carrington would make it a book of artistic interest.
And what of the two stories? They were by the Woolfs, too: Virginia’s “The Mark on the Wall” and Leonard’s “Three Jews”. They produced the entire book, from story ideas to posting the finished book out to buyers, and made a profit (they even made Carrington pay for her copy, which seems a bit much). And Virginia, feeling the power of the press, wrote in her diary “I’m the only woman in England free to write what I like.”
Sims Reed currently has another early Hogarth Press book on offer: Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens. The catalogue may say that it’s illustrated by Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister, but it’s not so much that the book is illustrated, but that the lines of the text themselves are illustrated, that is, the lines of the illustrations twine their way right into the words. I’d read Kew Gardens before, but it’s a completely different story when seen with the artwork. This copy, remarkably, is signed by both author and artist, and carries the bookplate of Victorian actress Ellen Terry.
I idly wondered what the oldest book in the shop might be, and a few minutes later a 1527 edition of the Polycronycon appeared on the table. In seconds, I moved from the first pages to come off of the Woolfs’s press, to a book associated with the first known printer in England, William Caxton. The Polycronycon is a history of the world written in the 13th century, in Latin, by a Benedictine monk. Translated into English and expanded by several hands (including those of Caxton, who brought it right up to date—as of 1460) it’s still an important source of information about the Roman Empire, about the Norman conquest of Britain, and about King Arthur (pace our own self-styled post-Thatcher King Arthur). The book itself is a work of art, with ornate capitals and finely detailed woodcuts, including a nearly full-page scene of St George and the dragon. The Polycronycon may not be 30 inches tall, but it’s a good 5 or 6 inches thick, and impressive on all counts: content, construction, illustration, typography—everything.
If I could own any one of the treasures I saw that day—the 1527 Polycronycon, Burges’s Architectural Drawings, or either of the Hogarth Press gems—it’d be a hard call. They’re all books I’d almost class as holy relics. Many, many thanks to Sims Reed; a place that can offer that kind of choice, and all free from calendars or coffee mugs, is what I call a real bookshop.
Many thanks to Sims Reed, and especially to Rupert Halliwell. Photos of the shop are mine, photos of individual books are used by permission.