I can remember back in the 70s when I could easily part with several hundred (1970s) dollars in London bookshops as I plunged frantically forward trying to tank up on all the stuff you couldn't get back in Palookaville. In Charing Cross Road you had both Foyle's and Colletts; Dillon's held forth up near University College; the Economist had its splendid bookshop next to LSE; Hatchard's ruled in Piccadilly although I didn't get down there very often,. And there were smaller shops just everywhere; indeed there was a time when my dream job was to clerk in the Colletts specialty Marxist shop; I figured my customers would come in for their Marxist fix and I would argue with 'em: the Socratic method without the bother of exams.
All that had pretty much vanished on my last stop here about nine years ago: Colletts was gone and Waterstone had taken over the old Dillon's location. There was a Borders in Charing Cross and Blackwell's of Oxford had established a presence nearby. But one had a sense that the smaller shops were just playing out the clock.
This time I guess the main surprise is that not a lot has changed in the past nine years. Borders is gone, but the other major players remain in place, and seem to be ringing up some sales. There is at least noteworthy new entry: the London Review of Book shop on Bury Street just a step away from the British Museum, and I think there may be a message here. My impression is that LR B is doing okay (if it is doing okay) because it has made itself a sort of a go-to venue: a lot of coffee shop space, apparently a good may readings and stuff, and the LRB brand. The comparison is inexact, but it reminds me a bit of Politics and Prose in DC which has made itself into a kind of see-and-be-seen social club.
Meanwhile, to my even greater surprise, some of the smaller shops appear somehow to be hanging on: there are half or dozen or so in or around the old Collett locale. Judd Street is till there, though not on Judd Street. Oh, and Skoob--it's in a basement of the Brunswick Shopping Center which would look to me like an awful location, but they do seem to have some custom. I dropped by the other day and spotted a nice three-volume set of Motlery's Rise of the Dutch Republic, in the Everyman Edition. Then I confess I committed the crime against independent bookshops everywhere: I went home and priced it on Amazon and Alibris. The next day I went back to Skoob and plunked down my cash. I confessed to my sin and told the clerk that he beat the internet price. Yes, he said, we try to keep it that way.