A great London literary institution, Foyle’s, is reinventing itself in a new premises. The famous Charing Cross Road branch (Charing Cross Road was London’s street of books) was once trumpeted as “the largest bookshop in the world”. Whatever about that it was certainly the most byzantine and featured a Soviet-style buying system (queue to be given a chit for your book, queue to pay your bill at the cashier’s, queue again with your receipt to collect your purchase). This elaborate arrangement was introduced by Christina Foyle, who managed the shop after her father’s death in 1963, to combat “widespread internal dishonesty”. The building’s many miles of shelving and many nooks and crannies however did little to combat widespread external dishonesty. It was a book thief’s paradise.
Foyle’s, now owned by nephew Christopher Foyle, is to open in a huge, and hugely impressive, new building just a stone’s throw away from the historic premises in the former Central Saint Martins art school, an art deco building dating from 1939 which has been home to Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and John Galliano. Edwin Heathcote writes in the Financial Times (June 7th):
There is no luxury shopfitting here, no confusion with the smooth artifice of a fashion store or a mall. Instead there are 4.6 miles of bookshelves, exposed ducting and lights in the ceilings and an emphasis on books as beautiful, tangible objects. It is a building of exceptional clarity …
The future of bookselling is of course uncertain, but Foyle’s is making a large investment. Some people think that the future for bookselling will involve the reinvention of premises as cultural, as well as retail, centres. There will be nothing new in this for Foyle’s, which has been running its celebrated literary luncheons since 1930: guests have included George Bernard Shaw, who drew two thousand paying guests, and, in the summer of 1940, a little known refugee called Charles de Gaulle. Not that literary events are always enthralling or the speakers necessarily magnetic of personality. Christina Foyle recalled (the story is retold in her Daily Telegraph obituary of 1999) the occasion on which the guests were addressed by Walter Gilbey, the head of the gin-making firm. “He spoke for one and a half hours,” she remembered. “A man in front of my father fell asleep, so he hit the chap with the toastmaster’s gavel. The man said: `Hit me again, I can still hear him’ ”