Continuing our amble round London's independent bookshops
The first thing that strikes you when you walk into West Hampstead's West End Lane Books is how much they really want to share their love of books with you. One entire bookcase is given over to staff favourites, books perch on display towers, covers facing outwards, all calling to you to stop and go 'ooo, that looks interesting' while you have a flick through.
The second thing that strikes you is how much choice is packed into a relatively small space. There's an excellent fiction section, of course, but also specialist sections on science, Jewish culture, politics, art, biography, history, children's, graphic novels, fashion, food and drink and photography. You'll also find imported US editions on the shelves. And those aren't even the bits they're most proud of - the poetry section is considered one of the best in the country, and they stock beautiful deluxe editions which should grace anyone's book collection.
You know how Waterstones and Borders have their sales, and it's usually pulp paperbacks or tosh that hasn't managed to sell? Well, West End Lane Books have discovered a supply of excellent discounted books and can pass those savings onto you, hardbacks and all, at prices you might struggle to get in second hand shops - and these are pristine unread.
Oh, and you might be interested to know that local resident His Lordship Stephen Fry occasionally pops in and decorates his books with his John Hancock. After we'd got over that discovery (and quickly snaffled a signed copy of Paperweight), we got chatting to owner Graeme Estry.
What kinds of books do you sell and why?
We are a local community independent, and take pride in serving our community as closely as possible. Therefore the bookshop is the result of a 15 year dialogue with the community, and they tend to want an intelligent and literary general stock, more curated and bespoke than a Waterstones or Borders. We also try to provide as much interest in and above our community mandate, and attract 'outsiders' with our specialities in imported titles, deluxe editions, graphic novels, Jewish interest titles, meticulously chosen sale stock and of course, experimental and avant-garde poetry, for which we have an international reputation. We have also previously had large sections on Japanese Literature, Russian Literature, Independent Publishers and Beat and Surrealist literature. These special sections change with the seasons.
Why did you become a bookseller?
I enjoy that the more I exercise and can communicate my enthusiasm for the culture of books, and for books as desirable objects, the better I am at the job. It's what I would be doing anyway, so it's almost not like work!
What's the weirdest or most serendipitous thing to happen in your shop?
We have several famous customers who occasionally bump into each other with alarm at our shop. Peter O'Toole and Phyllida Law's (actress mother of Emma Thompson) unexpected meeting in our shop after a gap of years was an incredibly theatrical affair to enjoy.
I couldn't mention the weirdest occurrences, for fear of occult interest. I wouldn't like to refuse access to Derek Acorah.
Are there any local myths or curiosities attached to your shop?
People swear that it was the second place Bob Dylan played in London. Or the third.
What are you reading right now?
Shadowmen by Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier. It's a non-fiction guide to 19th and early 20th century French pulp fiction. I can see a new section formulating as I am reading.
What's your hot tip for our next read?
The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati. It is a mystery why this 1940 fabulistic novel is not as well known as Kafka and Borges.
More topically, everyone has been waiting up to 30 years for the collected poetry of Jack Spicer to be reissued, as it has been recently by Wesleyan University Press, in the book My Vocabulary Did This To Me.
Which up-and-coming authors should we watch out for?
In poetry, it's hard to imagine that the career of Keston Sutherland will not be noteworthy in the literary histories of the future. In fiction, I have enjoyed the first two novels of Willy Vlautin, each intriguing mixtures of hardnosed dirty realism and poetic surrealism.
What are your favourite books about London?
The London sections of Murphy by Samuel Beckett and Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon; London Transport Posters by David Bownes and Oliver Green; London from Punk to Blair by Joe Kerr and Andrew Gibson (a collection of essays and photo-essays about London as it is perceived day-to-day, rather than as a heritage industry); and Place by Allen Fisher (an epic psychogeographical Olsonian poetic trawl through the psychogeography of Lambeth as capital "Place").
If you were a book, which would you be?
I feel today like a mixture of The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton and The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings By Richard Brautigan.
Independent bookshops: the future?
Very bleak. The work is becoming harder and harder as the internet and chains make it impossible to compete on the bread and butter profits of the business. It is the same for independent publishers, who are forced out of the market by paid-for promotions in chain stores, and the slew of books that are priced falsely high for purposes of advertised "discounts". But who wants their book browsing ability limited by WH Smiths, Tesco and the increasingly antiseptic Waterstones? Or by the programmers at Amazon? Or the editors at Hodder?
The upside is that most people when they think about it DO want to have as many alternative portals as possible, and are prepared to pay an extra pound or two for the convenience of a book in the hand, for the amenity of a serene place to be and browse and think and socialise, and perhaps to find the thing they didn't know they wanted right next to the book that they were seeking. And so a few nuts work hard for no pay to provide this choice, in both a quasi-mystic enjoyment of books as precious objects, and a belief in intelligent and curious book readers as an endangered species worth saving. And so, we will endure...
West End Lane Books, 277 West End Lane, West Hampstead. Images author's own. Know a good bookshop? Let us know on tips (@) londonist.com.