Rare Chelsea Books: Memories Of A Bookshop On The King's Road

Rare Chelsea Books: Memories Of A Bookshop On The King's Road

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In an abridged extract from A Bookshop in Chelsea, Philippa Bernard writes about Chelsea Rare Books — the shop she ran with her husband Leo from 1971 to 1999 — and the various King's Road neighbours they had.

The white frontage of the bookshop
Philippa opened the shop with her husband during a vibrant chapter in Chelsea's history.

When we first arrived in Chelsea the area was one of the great centres of modern young society.

Another was of course Carnaby Street, off Regent Street. But King's Road offered more space and easy access, with plenty of cheap eating places and constantly changing shops, boutiques and intriguing corners, always with the chance of meeting famous faces. Drop-head cars in the latest designs and colours would sweep down, often stopping in the middle of the road to disgorge flamboyant passengers. We were told of one, to be seen on a Saturday afternoon, containing a charming lion cub called Christian. Two young Australians had bought him for 250 guineas at Harrods — in the days when they sold exotic animals — and took him to visit friends in the area. They wrote a book about him, A Lion Called Christian. Soon he grew too big and was released into the wild in Kenya. When his owner later visited him on the reservation, Christian knew him immediately and they were reunited to the joy of both.

"The shopkeepers were friendly and helpful, though some were slightly eccentric"

This was the era of punk; aficionados wore white knee-high boots, the miniest of skirts, brightly coloured hair, long for men, very short for girls. Their opponents were the skinheads, with shaved heads and Doc Martens boots. The Rocky Horror Show was on, first at the Classic Cinema on the corner of Old Church Street and then at the King's Road Theatre, and the shops catered for all the new trends in fashion, furnishings and entertainment. Some of the great modern clothes designers started their working lives in Chelsea, where they knew that their customers — usually young and forward-looking — would find them. One was Vivienne Westwood. She had a shop at World's End, the further stretch of the King's Road, where the road 'kinked' before reaching Fulham. She changed the fascia from time to time, becoming 'SEX' and later 'World's End'. On the front was a large clock with thirteen figures which rotated backwards. The youngsters mobbed Chelsea on Saturdays, carrying loud music players — ghetto blasters — at full volume.

An older man and woman posing in front of bookshelves
Philippa and her husband Leo in their bookshop, Chelsea Rare Books.

Our parade of shops on the south side, stretching from Paultons Square to Beaufort Street, was a little commune on its own. The shopkeepers were friendly and helpful, though some were slightly eccentric. We were all happy to take in parcels, provide loose change or supply a little milk or sugar. An atmosphere of innocent curiosity prevailed, exchanging gossip and rumour without resorting to malicious small talk. Next to us, towards Beaufort Street, when we arrived, was an antique shop owned by William Bray, always known as Bill. Gruff and uncommunicative until you got to know him, and a confirmed chain-smoker, he was a pleasant neighbour and always gave us first refusal on any books he acquired with his purchases. He had endless stories about his past. He claimed to have been an officer in the Royal Navy, a cowboy in Australia, and several other professions, until he went into the antique business. He sold junk rather than antiques, and his shop was as scruffy as its owner, but every now and again he would offer something valuable and expensive.

A photos of a boutique - Mates from the 1960s
"This was the era of punk; aficionados wore white knee-high boots, the miniest of skirts, brightly coloured hair, long for men, very short for girls." Image: M I Kirkwood

"We discouraged our visitors from bringing galettes into the shop, to prevent sticky fingers from touching the books"

Martin Orskey had a print and bookshop of Martin Orskey, with a curved glass window. He was well-known in the trade and much respected. O.F. Snelling, in his book Rare Books and Rarer People, published in 1982, described him as the "prince of all the book runners — for this is what he was to begin with, and he would be the first to admit it." His first job was with the book auctioneers Hodgsons, of Chancery Lane, going round the bookshops of London and elsewhere in his spare time. He had an amazing ability to sniff out a bargain, and when he died in his nineties his collection was sold at auction for something just short of a million pounds. Although we must have seemed in competition to Martin, he was never anything but friendly and helpful to us, novices as we were. Further along the parade was Asterix, a restaurant specialising in delicious galettes, pancakes stuffed with every imaginable filling. We discouraged our visitors from bringing them into the shop, to prevent sticky fingers from touching the books, but that didn't stop us from buying them for ourselves.

The inside of a bookshop, with a man at a desk studying a book
Leo at work in the shop.

Early one morning in 1983 a new neighbour arrived in King's Road, a few doors away from us. The empty shop had intrigued us for some time. Some beautiful glass fittings appeared in the windows, the name Rococo was on the fascia, but we had no idea what was to be sold there. That first morning an attractive young woman arrived on the doorstep of the new shop, but seemed unable to get the door open. As we were the only shop open at that hour she asked for our help. We offered her some coffee — our usual reaction to meeting a new friend — and she introduced herself. Her name was Chantal Coady and she was about to open a chocolate shop. Leo followed her back to Rococo and managed to turn the key in the lock. In return he was offered the very first chocolate ever to leave the new establishment, which was later to become a world-renowned source of delicious confectionery. We were able to find from a colleague an early 1890 catalogue — Letang Fils Paris, Chocolate, Ice Cream Molds — full of sketches of chocolate designs which Chantal bought and reproduced in blue on white paper to use for the delicate wrapping paper for her chocolates.

A woman in a bookshop cuddling a white dog
A photo of the author with her dog, Tess, back in the day.

"Terry employed streakers, totally naked young men and women, to run up and down the road"

At the far end of the parade, on the corner of Beaufort Street, was Terry de Havilland's shoe shop, Cobblers to the World. Terry's shoes were fabulous, way-out footwear, and his customers, who came from every corner of the world of entertainment, included David Bowie, Cher, Bette Midler and even Rudolf Nureyev. On the day the shop opened, Terry employed streakers, totally naked young men and women, to run up and down the road, advertising his wares. They certainly attracted considerable attention.

Shelves of leather bound books
"We discouraged our visitors from bringing galettes into the shop, to prevent sticky fingers from touching the books, but that didn't stop us from buying them for ourselves."

There was another half-shop which sold jewellery, owned by Mr and Mrs Gilbert. They were there for some time, but left in very sad circumstances. One afternoon four young men got out of a taxi and asked it to wait. They ran into the shop, forced the Gilberts to the floor behind the counter, grabbed as many brooches, watches and rings as they could and piled back into the taxi. They told the cabbie to drive back to Wandsworth, but someone had taken the number of the cab and they were stopped on Wandsworth Bridge. The poor taxi driver found the police unwilling to believe he was completely innocent. The incident left the Gilberts very shaken, Mr Gilbert was taken ill and they had to give up the shop.

A Bookshop in Chelsea, published by Unicorn Publishing Group

The book cover

Last Updated 10 November 2023

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