Sims Reed, St James, London: My Kind of Bookshop

Sims Reed Rare Books, Duke Street St James at Ryder St. Visit their web site at

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.

"Two Stories" by Leonard & Virginia Woolf, 1917. This is one of at least two different covers in which they issued the book; the one at the British Library has a solid blue paper wrapper.

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).

An inviting shelf at Sims Reed. There's nothing in the photo to indicate the scale, so you'll have to take my word for it that the tallest books shown here are a good 30 inches tall.

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.

Kew Gardens, by Virginia Woolf with illustrations by her sister, Vanessa Bell. This edition, from 1927, is more lavishly illustrated than the first edition, produced in 1919, and this copy once belonged to Ellen Terry.

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.

An intriguing glimpse of the stock at Sims Reed

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.

The upper floors of the building, above the bookshop, offers service apartments let by the day or the week. You could come to London and stay just an elevator's ride away from the books you'd come to browse.

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.

The 1527 Polycronycon

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.



Filed under Arts, Culture, Many Books Little Time, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

9 responses to “Sims Reed, St James, London: My Kind of Bookshop

  1. Malcolm

    These days I’m cataloguing and packing a few thousand books from my own library in a lock-stock-and-barrel deal with Kenney’s Bookshop in Galway, so your write-up on Sims, Reid reawakens–regretfully–the instinct that has now led me to this lamentable chore. I rarely haunted such august establishments in earnest (for the same pecuniary reasons as you) but that only heightened the joy of finding, say, the complete works of Gilray, including the slim scatological volume on a street barrow … the illustrations to the 1st edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica in the attic of a burned-out cottage… Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach–with the errata slip … a fine copy of Emily Pankhurst’s How We Lived Then … the Hartsdale House edition of Candide with Mahlon Blaine’s illustrations … oh, I should not have started this.

  2. Redshoes

    What a wonderful post- thanks

  3. I realize I rarely comment, but its always a pleasure to read your posts.

  4. Candida

    I wonder if books will go back to being this sort of thing – I mean, you’re so clearly in love with these books as beautiful and historical objects, as well as for their content.
    You wouldn’t, I wager, feel the same quality of response to the paperbacks that were published in ever-larger numbers in the 20th century, however good their content. They filled the shelves of the bookshops, but are now bought online because most people don’t have an urge to see or feel them before buying, or even as digital files because people don’t feel the binding, the object, matters to them at all.
    It’s hard to know what the future holds for the printed book, but I’d make a small bet that even when the e-readers hold absolute sway for the mass market, books as beautiful objects (old or new), probably with a price tag to match, will keep a niche.

    • I agree, and had the same thought looking at these–plus there’s the question of why we no longer have many beautifully embellished books when this no longer involves making woodcuts or etching stone. Surely there must be a market for extraordinarily designed books; most likely it’s out there and I just haven’t look for it. I can’t imagine such a book would ever surpass the real thing, but they would be nice things in themselves.

      I’ve got Kindle and Apple eBook apps on my iPad and buy both real and electronic books. Still don’t understand why electronic books aren’t cheaper, given that costs of materials and distribution have dropped virtually to nothing, and authors, as ever, aren’t the ones who are pocketing the extra money…

      • Candida

        I remember doing budget “pinks’ for new titles when I still worked in-house in publishing. We began with the projected cover price and started splitting that down: 30% straight off the top was retailer, and that’s still the same today when the “shop” is on servers in silos rather than an expensive high-street presence. Of course, Amazon are selling the Kindle at cost or below to grab market: when you buy the Kindle, the texts you then buy on Amazon are actually paying for it. Presumably Apple stopped the buy-through-the-app stuff that cut them out because the market share Amazon have built is pretty terrifying. It’s all very mean just now.
        After that in costs came the author percentage, and then the staff and production and company overhead costs, and although print and distribution varied year by year, it was a surprisingly small chunk of the whole even in highly illustrated books. In the “immersive” fiction that has moved over to e-readers most, I don’t know, but without high-quality colour printing and paper to consider, I can’t imagine it would be a bigger proportion.
        Lot more shaking out to come in this market over the next few years: we live in those “interesting times”. I only hope text publishers manage the transition with slightly more intelligence than music publishers, and maybe move to creating beautiful objects again, as well as just texts.

    • Interesting indeed!

      I don’t know much about these things, but I do know a textbook author whose latest effort lists for $90 of which he sees less than $2. He has a deal to buy them from the publisher at less than $90 and sell them on, but his discount is less favorable than the discount the publisher gives to Amazon, so he can buy them cheaper via Amazon than by using his special author’s rate with the publisher. It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland world.

      So if we take 30% for the retailer, that’s $27 (even), and are generous to the poor author and say he gets $2, then we’ve still got over $60 to account for. If Amazon’s discount is so deep, perhaps that skews the numbers, since others will presumably pay more, but it still just looks crazy.

      And of course, there was a pirate version on the internet in Chinese just days after the book came out, which doesn’t help…

  5. Nice post Mef! Captures something of the addictive nature of old books. I don’t just feel it for the old beautifully made books, though, I find it hard to leave plain paperbacks if the book is one I really want to read, or have read already. I am especially tempted by the slightly less respectable covers of pulp fiction, especially when literature lurks within -These are what I one day hope to find when rummaging – or

    • Great covers! I took a look at places online offering Junkie for sale and they all seemed to be between in about £300 and £2000, til I got to some as low as £12, Which turned out to be second editions, with a different cover — but you probably found those already anyway.

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