7th June 2014 - Jonathan Ruppin
Our new flagship shop at 107 Charing Cross Road is finally open, bringing the curtain down on 85 years at our much loved but increasingly delapidated premises at 113-119.
Our Web Editor, Jonathan Ruppin, looks at why we've decided to move, what memories we'll keep of our historic home and what to expect from Foyles in the future.
Talking with our customers about our move to 107 Charing Cross Road has tended to provoke a certain wariness, alongside the curiosity and excitement that's grown as we've offered tantalising hints of what's to come. Why are we dismantling a cherished institution and trampling upon so many fond memories?
Our history has been one of adapting to the surrounding environment, from William Foyle's wooden footbridge across a Nazi bomb crater to lift shafts that don't descend to the basement because of the proximity of the Northern Line. But nostalgia doesn't sustain a bookshop forever and nor do premises cobbled together from, I'm led to believe, five separate buildings. 107 Charing Cross Road, however, is the crystallisation of over a century of bookselling experience into an astonishing new home that eloquently articulates why we're moving on.
In its 111 years, Foyles' myriad idiosyncrasies have undoubtedly exasperated a certain proportion of our customers, although I suspect the majority of the vows never to return have been reconsidered sooner or later. My own first encounter with Foyles was hardly auspicious. It was in the early 1990s and I was buying set texts for university. Baffled by the infamous three-desk payment system and the maddening policy of arranging books by publisher, I made it out after an hour, swearing that I'd stick with Dillons in Gower Street from then on. But I had the books I needed and, inevitably, more besides.
I can't imagine how many sales, how many customers were lost to that archaic procedure of chits going back and forth and it's what the majority of visitors whose memories go back far enough appear to recall. At one stage, we did plan to mark the move to the new premises with an exhibition of public recollections of old Foyles, but this idea was abandoned when it became apparent that it would consist almost entirely of stories, with varying degrees of fondness or frustration in the telling, about paying for books.
By the time I joined as a bookseller in 2003, the refit initiated by Christopher Foyle after the death of Christina four years before was nearing completion and most of the practices that had befuddled and infuriated customers for so long had been discarded. There were even computers now.
I'd come to Foyles dispirited by previous experiences in the book trade and mulling a career change. Being put in the Travel Department didn't help matters, especially given how many guidebooks were being half-inched by thieves sourcing stock for the stall under Hungerford Bridge.
But it was an early conversation with Sion Hamilton - then Poetry Buyer, now a director - that awakened me to the consuming ardour for books that I should have realised is prerequisite to a job at Foyles. I'd mentioned I was reading a proof of Jim Crace's upcoming novel, Six, and Sion quizzed me with sincere interest about my impressions. This was the first of countless earnest debates that have since waylaid me from whatever it is I've really been supposed to be doing. It's impossible to remain ambivalent about working with books in the face of such passion.
But it took a little longer for me to appreciate that so many customers are equally fired up by the literary labyrinth that is Foyles and the treasures in its every obscure nook. What did it was a seemingly preposterous idea set out by our then Commercial Manager once the five-year refit was finally completed: what remained of the old shelves was to be sawn into small pieces, tied with ribbon in Foyles red and given out as souvenirs. There were two thousand of the damn things, seemingly destined to clutter up the cashdesks for months.
Of course, they were all snapped up in a couple of days and we found ourselves scrabbling around for any other leftover shop fittings to appease those who'd missed out, including many who wrote from abroad.
I became more curious about the history of one of London's great landmarks, finding that working there was a rite of passage for so many now senior in publishing. At book launches, tales of great authors who'd spoken at the world-famous Luncheons, deeply knowledgeable yet often eccentric colleagues and dodgy employment practices have frequently been the reaction to my mentioning where I work.
With a history as colourful as a nation state, Foyles has clearly always had a precious place in the hearts of many. In this era of media diversity and multichannel retailing, Foyles can never occupy quite such an elevated role in literary and London life as it did in for much of the 20th century, but its continued flourishing is now more important than ever. It stands as an emblem of the importance of bookshops in sustaining our culture and our communities, proof of what remains possible in face of capitalism's most philistine excesses. And, naturally, it remains stuffed to the gunnels with books to fill countless lifetimes of reading.
I can't say I share the nostalgia of so many others for our old home; perhaps I've got to know the building's many flaws too well. In a previous role as Head of Front of House, I was always frustrated by the limitations of how we could present ourselves as customers first stepped through the doors. To understand that Foyles was a palace of books took some dogged exploration, something that couldn't be further from the truth next door. 107 is our Versailles, our Scala, our Maracanã, our stately pleasure-dome: it's what I've long felt Foyles could really be. As we tweeted when the shutter came down on old Foyles for the final time, you ain't seen nothing yet.
This article first appeared on BookBrunch on 6th June