A Bookshop-Filled Paradise for the Literary Browse-and-Buyers

Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.

--Dr. Samuel Johnson, July 14, 1763 When people who love literature come to London, they usually stop in to see Dr. Johnson's house in Gough Square. Then they head for the homes of Oscar Wilde (Tite Street, Chelsea), Charles Dickens (Doughty Street, Bloomsbury) and Keats (Wentworth Place, Hampstead).

But literary tours of this literary capital are incomplete without browse-and-buy sprees through the city's fine bookshops.

They offer every sort of volume, which, as Dr. Johnson suggested, personal inclination might make important to you.

Look for just-published works and current best sellers, first editions of the classics, specialized texts about esoteric subjects and inexpensive second-hand hard covers and paperbacks.

London's telephone directory lists more than 500 bookshops. In most of them you'll find good selections and a broad spectrum of stock, as well as appealingly genteel manners.

Begin your browsing near Dr. Johnson's house at J. Clarke-Hall (7 Bride Court), the sort of shop the good doctor might have frequented.

It now specializes, not surprisingly, in contemporary and rare antique editions of books by and about Johnson and his contemporaries (prices from about $7 to $5,000).

The shop also publishes catalogues of books about Johnson and his circle, as well as offering a rich selection of resale review copies of current titles at discounted prices, plus first editions of books dating from the 1800s to 1960s.

Charing Cross Road

The biggest concentration of London bookshops is along Charing Cross Road and in nearby Cecil Court. Foyle's (113-117 Charing Cross Road) is known as "the world's greatest bookshop."

It is a huge, rambling place with 30 departments spread over five floors. It's fairly chaotic, with books bursting out of overstuffed shelves and stacked everywhere. Asking for help to find what you want is well worth the effort.

Many books are marked substantially below list price. In addition to a vast choice of current titles on everything ranging from advertising to zoology, Foyle's has a rare book collection that includes antique editions of Robert Browning's poetry (about $1,200 for a complete 17-volume set published in 1889- 1894) and many other treasures.

Also on Charing Cross Road, Zwemmer (No. 80) offers an impressively comprehensive collection of books on art, illustration and film. Reads (No. 48A), Henry Pordes (No. 58-60) and Any Amount of Books (No. 62) all sell second-hand hard cover books (from about $2.50 and up), including many first editions (from about $15 and up) and paperbacks (about 60 cents and up).

Antiquarian Specialists

Nearby, Cecil Court boasts an extraordinary group of fine antiquarian bookshops. Bell, Book and Radmall (No. 4) has two floors of alphabetically arranged first editions, many with original dust covers, published from 1880 to the present, including both American and British titles priced from about $10 to $800.

Unusual and antique books about the performing arts are found at Pleasures of Past Times (No. 11), which also carries memorabilia, posters, post cards, programs and autographs related to the arts.

If you believe that reading of adventure is another way of living it, you'll find much excitement at Reg and Philip Remington (No. 14), specialists in modern and antiquarian books about travel.

Older volumes date from the 16th Century and include intriguing diaries with engaging descriptions of early voyages to still-exotic destinations in Africa and the Orient. Prices for these delightful adventures are from about $3 to $600.

Peter Stockham at Images (No. 16) offers children's and illustrated books, including new, second-hand and antiquarian volumes, prices from about $2 to $150.

About 10,000 children's titles are in stock, including first editions of the wonderful Babar books and other favorites from everyone's childhood.

Frognal Rare Books (No. 18) is an elegant two-story shop selling ancient tomes on economics, banking, early law and history. Volumes from the 16th Century and are in various languages. Another area of specialization is literature from the 19th Century to the 1930s. Prices from about $15 to $7,000.

Theater Memorabilia

Alan Brett Ltd. (No. 24) sells selected books on topology, maps and prints, many dating from before 1850. Of more general interest are attractive "Vanity Fair" prints and theater memorabilia, selling for about $6 and up.

At No. 27, H. M. Fletcher has a very broad selection of books ranging from very inexpensive second-hand paperbacks (50 cents and up) to fascinating, very rare and pricey 16th-Century Latin and Greek publications known as incunabula (some priced as high as $25,000).

Not far from Cecil Court, at 30 and 31 Long Acre, Bertram Rota collects first editions of modern literary giants, especially poets such as T. S. Eliot (about $800 to $1,600), Robert Graves ($150 to $250) and Wallace Stephens ($60 to $250). The staff is adept at purchasing rare books of the future; collectors can benefit from their astute choices.

Queen's Supplier

Be sure to visit two outstanding antiquarian bookshops in the Berkeley Square area.

Maggs Bros. (50 Berkeley Square), supplier of antique volumes to the Queen, has been owned and run by the same family for five generations.

This grand London tradition occupies a five-story town house and has several departments, each lined with handsome bookcases filled with fascinating old books. English literature, as well as works on history, travel and exploration and the military are strongly represented.

Another area of specialization is theology books published before 1660. Maggs also has an extensive collection of autographs and Capt. James Cook documents. Prices begin at about $50 and run into the thousands.

G. Heywood Hill (10 Curzon Street) has an extraordinary staff with in-depth knowledge of current titles and antique books in stock. List prices are charged for most books, but the staff's expert advice to readers and collectors is invaluable. That's probably why many writers frequent this somewhat cluttered and very friendly shop.

Specialties include literature, with the newest and many unusual titles represented, as well as art and architecture. There's a wonderful children's department in the basement with current and antiquarian titles, including some from Victorian times. Prices for antique books from about $50 and up.

Largest Rare Book Dealer

Bernard Quatrich (5-8 Lower John Street in Golden Square), established during the 1840s, claims to be the world's largest antiquarian bookshop and has published more than 1,000 catalogues of its rare books.

Every category of book is included in the vast collection, and individual departments for English literature, natural history, early printed books, the arts, philosophy, science, travel, private press books and others are well organized and systematically run.

Quatrich is famous for book auctions. Average prices between $100 and $10,000, but recent sales have included a medieval manuscript for about $8 million and a Gutenberg Bible bought by the University of Texas for about $2.4 million.

Even if you can't afford such rarities, visiting these bookshops may make a collector of you.

You may wish to contact London's Antiquarian Booksellers' Assn. (26 Charing Cross Road, London WC2, phone 379-3041) for an expanded list of dealers and for information on their annual Antiquarian Book Fair, this year scheduled for June 21-23 at the Park Lane Hotel.

Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing.

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