August 2003

Mike Atherton

independent bookstore profile

Foyles of London

I consider myself fortunate to work in a bookshop. After drifting through a series of silly career choices I landed a 'temporary' job in a bookstore after a friend told me it would be a fun thing to do before going back to university. I stayed there for a few months and had a blast. Once I got back to studying it dawned on me that I had had my fill of working in an office. Once caught, the bookselling bug is hard to shake off.

Three years on and I have worked in a variety of bookshops in and around London (I even did a little time in Borders -- I still shudder whenever I walk past one) but have finally settled down in what I consider to be the best of the bunch -- Foyles.

The problem I face in writing about the place for Bookslut is that I am going to be very biased. If I didn't like the place then I wouldn't have applied for a job here but then again I'd hardly write a piece on a bookshop that I didn't like.

It's located on the same Charing Cross Road made famous in the book by Helen Hanff although the number of bookshops nearby has dwindled over the years due to increasing rent hikes and pressure from the larger chains. Foyles however has remained longer than most and celebrated it's 100th year of independent trading this year. In fact it recently won the 'Nibbie' award for the UK's Independent Bookshop of the Year. Although there is a Borders directly opposite, Foyles is a million miles away from the chain-store experience.

Its age alone makes the store something of an institution in every sense of the word. It is a London landmark, a tourist attraction, a meeting place, a point on the British literary compass and has a hundred-year-old reputation for being 'unique'.

Sometimes these things can distract from the fact that it is also a fully functioning modern bookstore open over four floors with a bewildering variety of sections, subsections and book titles. I am one of over a hundred members of staff so between us we can usually find the correct answer to a mad array of questions. Over 30 miles of shelving make it one of the largest bookshops in Europe.

From the customer's point of view (and especially so if you are here on holiday) it is a great place to lose yourself. It feels like a whole series of separate bookstores under the one roof. Each section tends to be run in its own way with the staff themselves doing the ordering and title selection. "If they haven't got it in Foyles you won't find it in London" is a regular refrain and while not all together true, the choice on offer is pretty staggering.

As are the customers. Being a famous bookstore we get our share of famous book buyers. Ewan McGregor and Jarvis Cocker often pop through. In the past we have had Henry Miller, JB Priestley, HG Wells, Enid Blyton, Walt Disney, Colonel Gadaffy, Graham Greene, Robert Mitchum, Orson Welles, Ian Fleming, Ingrid Bergman and a host of others. Richard Burton was quite proud of shoplifting here. And we once sued the Pope.

Did I mention the piranha tank? It's in the children's section. Killer fish have been known to distract even the most ardent Harry Potter fan. You can see why I enjoy my job.

There are some difficulties. Foyles used to be a nightmare to shop in. Just about everyone admits this. There was a bizarre payment system that involved queuing once with your book in order to obtain a ticket and then again to hand the ticket over along with your payment. Even now people come in daily and tell me stories of how much 'fun' it was shopping here back in the seventies. The store is still shaking off its reputation and it is not unusual to hear comments like, "If we find a member of staff I'll do a lap of honour around the building!"

This all began to change in 1999 when matriarch Christina Foyle died and the store was passed onto her son Christopher. In 2002 the beginning of a major shop-wide overhaul and space was giving to two other independent business forced to close their doors because of rent increases on Charing Cross Road.

Foyles now houses Silver Moon, a very established and well-respected feminist bookstore while Ray's Jazz now shares space with the independent organic Café. Customers can sit in the Café and drink real coffee listening to live jazz whilst glancing at the poor lost souls wandering in and out of Starbucks across the street.

In the short time I have worked there (five months) I have helped wrestle a shoplifter to the ground, directed Lemmy from Motorhead to books on World War II aircraft, been recognized by authors as a Bookslut reviewer, phoned for one ambulance, watched a helicopter land on the street outside, posed for photographs with Japanese tourists and been given gifts by over excited Korean students. I have also been known to sell the occasional book.

Foyles is a hotspot for meeting authors. They pop in daily to sign their books, sometimes unannounced. A few days ago I bumped into Will Self, literally. And of course we have author focused events. In Spetmeber alone I get to annoy the likes of JG Ballard, Chuck Palahniuk and Douglas Coupland. Looks like Neil Gaiman will also be dropping by.

As a part of the centenary celebrations the store published it's own history Foyles: a Celebration by Penny Mountain which is well worth a read for the extracts taken from previous owners' diaries:

Another typical day (in 1912):

Dr Duncan had a fit
Miss Bishop left
Miss Hatton, bilious attack
Miss Tulloch, sick
Mr Hobbs gave notice
A man ran amok:
Killed 1 person, injured 3

So now you know where I hang out most days. Drop me a line anytime you are in London or pop in and mention Bookslut and I'll buy you a cup of coffee.