Shortly after first moving to London, I decided to spend a Saturday afternoon wandering around the centre of town, trying to get my bearings (and probably buying an A-Z). For reasons which escape me, I had in my head that the centre could be defined by being bordered to the north by Oxford Street, west Bond Street, south the Mall and east Charing Cross Road. Leaving aside that this misses out huge swathes of the city which could only be described as central, such as Covent Garden and Fitzrovia, Notting Hill, Kensington, Camden and so on, and, essentially, is just the streets which strangle Soho, all this shows is that I was a naïve bumpkin who couldn’t comprehend how big London was compared to Birmingham and Sheffield.
Anyway, my explorations would be to walk those false borders. I didn’t get very far, about two thirds of the way up Charing Cross Road in fact when I thought: Ooh, big book shop.
Even back then, I found it difficult to pass a bookshop I didn’t know without going in.
Inside, I found a panelled maze of rickety stairs and creaking shelves. Books crammed into every corner, stacked up the steps, stuffed at angles across the more ordered lines. The lighting was low and occasionally I’d bump into someone looking furtively between a scrawled list on the back of an envelope and the dishevelled displays. It took me a moment to realise that I was hopelessly lost. I knew where the door was, obviously, but I didn’t know where I was in terms of the books. There seemed no rhyme nor reason as to why a swathe of jumbled literary fiction would be followed by half a dozen military history books before jumping to gardening and landscapes.
After an hour or so, still none the wiser, I popped outside, exasperated and without purchase. I glanced up at the store sign. It did, of course, say W&G Foyle's and this would have been at the end of their seemingly deliberate attempts to be anti-capitalist and anti-consumer by having such infuriating practices as arranging their stock by publisher rather than genre or author meaning that the customer needed a detailed understanding of the industry to track down a specific item otherwise it was just luck.
Today, Foyle's is a smallish chain of award-winning retailers with branches cropping up around the capital (and Bristol). They seem to be expanding when the rest of the paper-selling world is pausing to check the market’s temperature, but I spotted, a spanking new one in the refurbished Waterloo station the other day. For the best part of the twentieth century, however, Foyle's seems to have been a byword of eccentricity.
The flagship Charing Cross store was established in 1906 after the founders, William and Gilbert, vacated their Queen’s Road Peckham store for the centre of town – their first Peckham employee absconding with the week’s takings may have been influential in them moving. With its prime position, ramshackle interiors and enormous stock, Foyle's soon gained a strong reputation. Even the madness reign of Christina Foyle and her refusal to adopt modern retail models couldn’t kill it off.
As late as 1999, Foyle's was known for things such as not being able to place an order by telephone, a system where for buying a book customers had to queue to collect an invoice, queue to pay the invoice, queue to collect the book. Staff were on the equivalent of zero hours contracts with, at the end of a bad week, Christina roaming the floors firing people at random to balance the books. Of course, the fact many staff were ripping her off can’t have endeared them to her – the ordering system, apparently, kept no record of stock due to arrive just what actually turned up. This left plenty of opportunity, so I’m told, to simply take things out the back of the delivery van and put it straight into your own vehicle.
Still, Foyle's was the epitome of Charing Cross Road – a street which, fifteen years ago, was packed with book shops, mainly second hand. In 2014, Foyle's, Quinto and one or two others are the last players standing – even the specialist murder bookshop, Murder One, swallowed up by high leases and replaced by luggage stores, juice bars and sellers of gimmicky tourist t-shirts. My mother went to London and all I got was this lousy t-shirt because the world doesn’t want anything substantial.
Even today, despite an expensive overhauling making it less trapped in the past, the store can be charmingly random. A few years ago, I ordered some books online and chose store collect. The collection desk was in the basement and required me to ring a bell for attention. When the attendant grumpily turned up, he scowled, silently took my printed out reference number and stomped off. Ten minutes later he returned, berated me for not realising that just because I’d been emailed to say my order was ready for collection, I shouldn’t have assumed it was and why didn’t I ring to check? Now, bugger off and come back in a couple of weeks.
Despite this, the staff are generally knowledgeable, helpful and hopefully on better terms of employment than they once were. The store is organised, light and well stocked. Regular literary events, talks and book launches open to all, often free, keep it busy and exciting into the evenings.
So, obviously, it’s moving.
Foyle's has spent the past couple of years remodelling the old St Martin’s College of Art and Design. The building, essentially the bookshop’s next door neighbours and immortalised in the lyrics to Pulp’s Common People, shut up shop sometime ago when the university realised it could make a tidy profit selling off a significant central London premises and decamping to something purpose built in the new development north of scrubbed up King’s Cross. The old building was an industrial rat warren, pockets of concrete and belching chic pipes producing the occasional fart of compressed steam. In the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the British Intelligence headquarters is filmed in the college, presumably between the university vacating it and Foyle's swinging in to redevelop (that was a touch I liked as, while it looked ridiculous as a base for seventies spies when the organisation’s senior management would have had one foot in the Edwardian period, the location is only a few metres away from Cambridge Circus, where John Le Carre placed them in the original novel).
I hope Foyle's haven’t done too much remodelling. The way I remember the college building is that it would be suitable eccentric to be their twenty-first century home without adopting the more generic, bland temperature of most retail corporate’s flagship stores. And Foyle's has never been bland. A little bonkers, but never bland.