There was a bookstore on Charing Cross Road in which you could get lost. Because the space was two buildings joined together, the books were to be discovered in cubbies or corner rooms, as well as on the expansive ground floor. Fiction merged into theatre, joined up by lovely hardcover reprints. That was not its first home: Foyles was founded in 1903, opened on Charing Cross Road in 1906, and moved in 1929 to the location it just vacated. (Read more of its history on the Guardian and timeline.) Then exciting news. Foyles acquired the building next door, 107 Charing Cross Road, and was therefore moving into a larger space. With enough room for 200,000 titles on four miles of shelving. That an independent bookstore is expanding in these tough times is news indeed.
Designed by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, the new store is clean. Even the exposed pipes are clean. Each level is visible to the one below it from the central atrium. Elevators work. What it has lost in charm it has gained in light and efficiency. Plus the cafe not only feels bigger, sharing space with an art exhibition (Mark Titchner), it still serves carrot cake. Finally, there is a sixth floor auditorium.
To which I went, joining in some of the literary events of the Grand Opening Festival that mark both the reopening of the store and celebrate Independent Booksellers Week.
The first event that I attended was a panel discussion: the Great Bookshop Debate. Authors Louise Doughty and Mark Forsyth joined a Random House rep and a new bookshop owner to discuss, under the guiding questions of Jason Cowley, Editor of the New Statesman, the future of the independent bookshop. Each began by giving their personal forecast for the book industry, covering the pros and cons of e-readers and self-publishing. The head of buying at Foyles declared at one point, “We at Foyles believe bookshops are here to stay.” It was meant to be a lively discussion, but … Despite the general conclusion that books as objects would continue to be made (even if as luxury items), then bought and sold in shops, the atmosphere was one of, well, melancholy. It wasn’t until the festivites at the next evening that I realized it was as if the largely middle-aged audience had come for reassurance that what they knew and loved would continue to exist as books they could touch.
The Literary Death Match the next evening brought a younger and louder audience. And free books! From Windmill Books. I’ve already finished my freebie: Sathnam Sanghera’s Marriage Material — a better novel than the title suggests. The death match was not nearly as deadly as it sounds. Three (published) judges pick the best of authors who read in two rounds of two readers. My daughter was so impressed by Nick Harkaway’s reading that we bought his book, Tigerman. Then the winners of each round went up against each other, with audience help, to guess what is being drawn on a large sheet of paper. The winners were the best at doing voices: a new piece heavy on accents from John Boyne and an angry “this is not a poem” poem from Anthony Anaxagorou (winner of London Mayor’s Poetry Slam).
In what other ways can an independent bookstore bring in potential book buyers? Foyles has several things on the go: international literary tours, such as the one to Jaipur Literature Festival, and literary tours of England and Wales. Book clubs. Live music. Films shown in partnership with the BFI (much as if the NFB were screening at Chapters). Art exhibitions. Readings and lectures. The Foyles Festival Chorus (staff, customers and folks in the book biz). Most importantly, to make changes after 111 years of selling books.