As many of our longstanding customers will attest, before the shop was refitted and modernised following the death of the legendary Christina Foyle in 1999, Foyles was one of London's most eccentric retailers, with a three-queue payment system and an insistence on shelving books by publisher among its many idiosyncrasies.
Nevertheless, working at Foyles has been a rite of passage for many who still make their living from books, many authors among them. Edward Carey was employed as a bookseller in mid-1990s, but his since become a successful writer, first of two novels for adults, Alva & Irva and Observatory Mansions, and now the deliciously dark Iremonger trilogy for young adult readers: Foulsham, the sequel to Heap House, is newly published and both books feature his own illustrations.
Here Edward shares his experiences of working for Christina Foyle in a place strange enough that he might have dreamed it up himself for one of his gloriously Gothic tales.
About 16 years ago, before the internet had conquered the world, before 9/11 and the Euro, Christina Foyle was still alive and I worked in her bookshop. Just like so many others before me, I was ushered by her unassuming driver into her flat on top of the bookshop building. She interviewed all her potential employees, I can't remember exactly what she asked me but I do remember thinking that there was something rather fairytale about her, as if she were a tidier version of Miss Havisham. Having barely arrived, I was ushered out once more. 'You only see her once, you'll never see her again,' one of my colleagues told me, and she was right, that was the law of the place. However there was always a feeling that she was present, that this was her place.
Christina Foyle's eccentricity filtered down from the top of the building into the many floors below. The Foyles that I remember resembled an empire in decline. You might not notice the strangeness of the place on first entering - the first floor where the fiction resided may even seem negotiable - but travel further in that strange world and it would come upon you very quickly. Suddenly you would know you were not in an ordinary bookshop.
Books, books everywhere. But their order seemed immediately strange, the corridors, lanes streets of books seemed to lead you into greater confusion. The books seemed to be whispering, 'Who are you? What do you want?'
In Foyles back then books could be put on a shelf and sit there for decades. There were very old books, languishing and neglected in corners, a general notion of books in poor health and confused people wandering about them. In Foyles you had a definite sense that books lived there. But it seemed like there was so much more than books in that rickety tower of words. My colleagues used to whisper that secrets of state were not locked away in some government vault, rather they were secreted among the bookshelves at Foyles where they could be certain never to be found. One fellow speculated that the whereabouts of Lord Lucan could be found inside the bookshop if you only knew where to look.
The stairs. The stairs at Foyles. They felt like they belonged to some forlorn educational establishment though what exactly it taught, the place had long since forgotten. The steps were worn away like the marble in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella, you feared you would tumble to your death. You could take the lifts, the dreaded service lifts with their old fashioned accordion metal shutters best not to though, those lifts had attitude. There were corners of the place that had not seen light for a long time, and on occasion it seemed that some of the public had got lost in the maze of confusion and had, exhausted and faded, found themselves morphing into yellowing books.
But most of all I recall the basement, and there I remember being stationed for what seemed a very long time. The place had all the welcome of a Victorian urinal. There was a strange smell in the basement that I cannot define, and that I've never smelt anywhere else but I can quite ever stop smelling even now so many years later.
If, by some fluke, you found the book you were looking for, or discovered a book that had never occurred to you before (I remember one I found all about snails, a tremendous book) and you went to buy it then the confusion grew worse. You had to take it to one counter where a chit would be written for you and the book taken from you and then you had to go to a different counter (often a long way away) to buy the book, then you had to return to the first counter with your stamped chit which would be inspected and only then would you be reunited with your book (now yours) and then you merely had to find the way out and the pair of you (you and your book) were free again, were liberated. It seemed actually that Foyles so loved their books that they hated to part with them.
And yet beyond the chaos there was still a certain understanding of books, even a passion for them. It was an adventure being there, it was idiosyncratic, infuriating but wonderful. We talked about books with great excitement, I first read Haruki Murakami and Mervyn Peake there. The employees were a very varied army of people who knew they wouldn't be staying long (most of the jobs were not permanent, you were told that you would only be employed for a limited period of time) and those rarer people who did stay there longer looked somehow connected to the place as if they may have lost their organs somewhere between the bookshelves and hoped one day to find them. Of all the bookshops I have ever known Foyles is the one that most recalls the one in which the young Doktor Kien in Elias Canetti's Auto da Fe is deliberately lost in as a child. He loved books and yearned to spend a night with them. To him books were somehow alive, you always felt that in Foyles.
Now Foyles has new books and a new home. In the new premises, books breathe in light. In general there is a feeling of lightness and legibility. But still - perhaps leading from the dance floor saved from Central St Martins - a real feeling of both past and future, it's a clean space, still holding on to its old eccentricities; you may still buy a stethoscope there, it still has the sheet music, though now the collection is entirely ordered. It feels like an individual place, it has an identity, but stands proud, it probably still has many secrets amongst it books. It feels related to the old building, a handsome younger giant to the old rusting behemoth. The books are talking to each other again, they whisper through a spine of light in the centre of the store. The whole place is fresh and bright, and a reader there is free to journey among all the clear streams of books; it flows now where before it seemed made up of dead ends. It still holds the character of the old Foyles, but now feels young and alive, full of hope and excitement. A new place to get lost.