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Honourable literary mentions

13th June 2014 - Marion Rankine


At Foyles, we're lucky enough to count innumerable authors among our regular customers: you'll often spot award-winning writers looking for information and inspiration or children's illustrators sketching away. So it's not surprising that Foyles has been employed as location in a fair few novels and made appearances in several memoirs.


Marion Rankine, from the Fiction Dept at our Charing Cross Road flagship store, picks out some of her favourite Foyles cameos, from Mary Wesley's salacious mention to JM Coetzee's more disdainful impression, not to mention Richard Burton's account of Elizabeth Taylor's shoplifting triumph.



Honourable MentionsThere's a lovely description of a bookshop in Agatha Christie's The Clocks: 'It is clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way about. Everywhere they had run wild and taken possession of their habitat, breeding and multiplying, and clearly lacking any strong hand to keep them down.' But does a bookshop ever own its books? I think even the most strong-handed booksellers have days where it feels as though really, honestly, the books are the ones in charge. And over the past few months, as we've been preparing for the move to our beautiful new premises at 107 Charing Cross Road, it's become increasingly clear that it's not just books that own a shop: it's everyone who's
ever visited it.


The longer a shop occupies a site, the greater the sense of ownership held by all the people who frequent it. Whether they're tourists, regulars, casual wanderers or staff, the building itself becomes part of everyone's territory, memory, and imagination. Maybe it's a favourite armchair or an entire section, a comforting corner or a particular view: we all develop certain proprietary feelings and stake out our secret turf. We've heard it in people's voices when they discover we're moving: 'But you've always been here. Why are you leaving?!' Or when a customer asks for directions, dismayed that sections have moved since their last visit and they can no longer navigate a space they considered known. Or when you're shelving and you sense someone lurking nearby, waiting to swoop in on the Nabokovs you're blocking from view. 'Mine!' their behaviour politely asserts. And why shouldn't it? Public spaces are just that: there to be shared, owned, frequented and cherished by all.


So it's no surprise, then, for a shop as seasoned as Foyles, that a whole other kind of ownership has sprung up over time: that of writers. From Susan Sontag to John le Carré, Graham Greene to MC Beaton, diarists, novelists and historians alike have sketched Foyles into their own literary worlds. Admittedly, some are rather less than complimentary. In her diary entry of 17th September 1957 (from Reborn), Susan Sontag notes: 'After lunch... went to Foyles (very near); spent an hour in philosophy section. It's deteriorated hugely since six years ago. Bought nothing." JM Coetzee's semi-autobiographical novel Youth echoes a similar disdain. 'Foyles, the bookshop whose name is known as far away as Cape Town, has proved a disappointment. The boast that Foyles stocks every book in print is clearly a lie, and anyway the assistants, most of them younger than himself, don't know where to find things. He prefers Dillons...'.


QuicheDeathBut it's not all bad. The illustrious Graham Greene penned a mention in The End of the Affair, when two characters are discussing what to do with a deceased lovers' books: 'One can't just send them to Foyle's, can one?' In Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, MC Beaton has her irrepressible sleuth discover some key information in Foyles: 'She went to Foyles' bookshop in the Charing Cross Road and looked up a book on poisonous plants. She studied a picture of cowbane. It was an innocuous looking plant with a ridged stem and flower heads composed of small white flowers.' She learns that it grows in marshy places, and the mystery of how cowbane infiltrated commercially grown spinach feeds her conviction that the 'accidental' death-by-quiche was, in fact, murder.



The young Rose in Mary Wesley's Not That Sort of Girl uses Foyles for quite a different sort of instruction: 'On an afternoon when she was supposed to be running errands for her mother, she had searched the shelves of Foyles bookshop, found a sex book for beginners. This manual she had perused locked in the lavatory, puzzling over the diagrams...'.



On the subject of mapping territory and public spaces, Phyllis Pearsall visited Foyles in 1935 as a starting point in her ambition to map all of London. Sarah Hartley's biography, Mrs P's Journey, recounts the dinner party conversation from the night before:


'One does find it tremendously hard to negotiate London, especially if one is rarely in town,' chipped in Lady Veronica.

'Yes, but do you not find that unless you are in a taxi, there is no clear way to know how to get to where one is going?' queried Lord Knott.

This conversation would nag at Phyllis all through the remaining duck and brandied-plum courses, and then through the night. The very next morning, she became determined to find a street map of London.

First, she went to Foyles on Charing Cross Road, where she was told, 'The last Ordnance Survey map of London was charted in 1919.'

'I'll take two copies, please.'


Sadly, Foyles can't claim to be among the A-Z map's original stockist; that honour went to WH Smith.


Perhaps you've read John le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy? Foyles appears twice. Ian McEwan's Solar and Sweet Tooth also reference Foyles. But my favourite is this roguish episode from 'Homemade,' a short story in McEwan's First Love, Last Rites: 'And then there were the thrills of shoplifting. The idea as explained to me by Raymond was quite simple. You walked into Foyles bookshop, crammed your pockets with books and took them to a dealer on the Mile End Road who was pleased to give you half their cost price.'


Burton DiariesSpeaking of shoplifting, Richard Burton went to delightful lengths to describe his and Elizabeth Taylor's escapades in his Diaries:


I told [Elizabeth Taylor] that while up at Oxford and in the RAF I would, when ever I could, go to London for the weekends and steal books from the giant Foyles in Charing Cross Road. I told her how I used to do it. During the war, when I did my best stealing, there was an acute shortage of paper and Foyles couldn't wrap the books up as they do nowadays. I would buy one book and pay for it. The assistant would give a receipt which I would ostentatiously leave hanging out of the pages of the legitimate purchase. Now whether one bought one book or ten you still had only the one slip of paper to show for it. I would then pick up one or two Everyman's, taking a long long time - as much as an hour sometimes before I sauntered quietly out of the shop. I must have stolen scores of Everyman's in this way.


He goes on to describe his horror when Taylor, during her own visit to Foyles, managed to make off with a copy of A Shropshire Lad under the adoring noses of managers, fans and store detectives: 'I gave her a terrible row but her delight was not to be crushed. It's the first and last thing she ever stole in her life, except, of course, husbands!'



Whatever movie stars made off with, eccentric business owners seemed more than happy to make up for. David Archer, whose bookshop was an institution of Greek Street in the 1950s and 60s, was renowned for driving customers off to the competition. As Ed Glinert notes in The London Compendium: 'Customers were often dissuaded from buying, and when Colin Wilson's The Outsider was all the rage in the 1950s, anyone asking for the book was told, 'No, no, no, we haven't anything like that here. You'd do much better to go up the street to Charing Cross Road to Foyle's. Good morning.', even though there were stacks of copies lying in the back room.'



In London: City of Disappearances, Paul Buck offers an intriguing glimpse into the (thankfully outmoded) business operations of Foyles-that-was:


The shop was famous for its accumulation of stock, no clearance sales, back stock lost among endless shelves; no stocktaking. You could find books, out of print for years, still at the original prices. Here was a dream outlet for small and independent publishers who could always send in a rep to top up the stock, deliver them in the afternoon with a bill to be paid a few days later... Foyles solved many a cash-flow problem.


He goes on to describe some of the more salacious interactions between staff members, which are best not repeated in civilized company (oh all right, it's on page 39).


RandallMore recently, a character with literary pretensions in Tim Glencross' May 2014 debut Barbarians uses the shop as an excuse to feel smug: 'Realising that she was going to be early, Buzzy got off at Waterloo East to complete the journey on foot via Foyles, where she passed a happy twenty minutes making a mental note of all the books she would buy when she had some money, and secretly measuring her taste against that of her fellow browsers.' And Jonathan Gibbs' Randall (released on 19th June by the wonderful Galley Beggar Press) has its title character using Foyles as something akin to a classroom: 'He wanted to see what a clever, but essentially ignorant rich young financial whiz-kid would look like if he got art, and I was his Pygmalion, his plasticine model... He lent me books, gave me lists, took me to Compendium or Foyles or the secondhand bookstores on Charing Cross Road.'



All of which brings us to a most intriguing question: once the dust settles on the Grand Opening Festival and readers and writers alike get down to the serious business of navigating, browsing and staking out territory at 107 Charing Cross Road, who will pen the first literary mention of Foyles in its newest incarnation?


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