Yesterday I visited Waterstone’s Gower Street, which in my mind is called simply ‘Gower Street’ and, in many other people’s, is still indelibly fixed as ‘Dillons’. A great bookshop and, of all the bookshops I have visited (there have been a few), easily my favourite. It’s situated in the heart of Bloomsbury. Approaching from Gordon Square, you come upon it suddenly, an Arts and Crafts enchanted castle before which there is always a litter of student bicycles, as if thrown down in homage at its feet. On an early spring day, especially when the sun is shining, your heart lifts immediately.
The shop was founded by Una Dillon, herself one of the extended ‘Bloomsbury set’. Almost every other door of the houses in Gordon Square and adjoining Fitzroy Square is adorned with a blue plaque celebrating the fact that a Bloomsbury author lived there; Una Dillon created the shop to serve them. The building was originally an early experiment in franchise retailing, a sort of forerunner of the Galeries Lafayette or Selfridges. It was designed to house twenty-four retail units, one of which was initially taken by Una Dillon. Gradually, over a period of years, she expanded until she had bought all of the units and therefore the whole building. (This also lifts my heart: I wonder if there is the remotest possibility that this could still happen today? Could a bookshop oust, say, Zara, Boots, Gap, Marks & Spencer and their ilk from such an ‘emporium’? I have my doubts!) Consequently, behind the scenes, it is a rabbit warren of corridors and small offices. It is also a protected building – of which I’m entirely in favour – although it does mean that not even a nail can be knocked into the wall without English Heritage’s being first consulted.
This shop came under my jurisdiction for several years in the 1990s. At the time, there were booksellers there who could remember Una Dillon’s being wheeled into staff meetings in her wheelchair and who were still in awe of her memory. (I must admit that the image of this is conflated in my mind, unfairly I’m sure, with the image of Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed corpse, similarly wheeled into meetings at UCL nearby, but I’m sure that Una was still alive on the occasions of which they spoke!)
I myself have many excellent memories connected with the shop – for example: the launch for George Soros’s book, which attracted so many people that it had to be held in a lecture theatre at UCL, with a television link to an overspill room; coming out of the manager’s office and finding Will Self chatting to the staff in the reception area; walking back a little dazed to King’s Cross through a summer dawn on a Sunday morning, having – with all of the staff – been up all night stocktaking. And it is still my favourite place for browsing and buying books.
Great bookshops are like people – they have personalities. A great old bookshop like Gower Street also has secrets. As far as I know, there has never been a murder committed there, but there could have been. Maybe someone will write a novel about it!
12 thoughts on “My favourite bookshop!”
I miss British bookshops. Thank you for this post, it’s a bookshop to which I am not yet acquainted.
You’ll have deduced that I love lots, but this one is a very special place to me. 🙂
🙂 I love second hand bookshops and the smell of the pages.
Fiona, don’t start me off! Secondhand bookshops are even more exciting when one is hunting for something in particular! Or when a book has a personal note inside it, undetected for years! Or when… 😉
I received a copy of a second hand book for research during the writing of my book which had a hand written letter inside with the date of the beginning of my book: January 1993. How’s that for serendipitousness (yes, it’s a new word).
Exactly that! Finding letters in books – magical stuff!
I remember it as Dillons – soo useful when I was at Uni. WHY are bookshops closing down? The big Waterstones at Watford has now gone. I was really shocked! Amazon is useless for browsing and those serendipitous discoveries only made in bookshops.One day, wwe will look back on this time as the decline of culture andcivilisation. Hopefully I won’t be around to see it. Rant.
Please rant as much as you like here, Carol, when your ranting so obviously supports bookshops. You know that they are my lifeblood and no online provision can ever do what they and their booksellers achieve.
A lovely, nostalgia-inducing post! Hard to limit the number of my favourite bookshops, but my very first goes back to Melbourne, in the early 1960s. A tiny, independent bookshop, “Winifred Young’s”, with the splendid lady herself there. This was back in the days when bookshops would stick tiny labels with their name inside the front cover of books they sold. I treasure the few books I still have, bearing Winifred Young’s label.
More recently, there was the incomparable “In Other Words Bookshop”, Plymouth, which was in business from 1982 to 2007, run by two beloved friends of mine (one of whom sadly died recently.) They moved to Plymouth from Manchester, and I used to visit annually and help out (well, just enjoy myself!)
And I should certainly mention Waterstone’s, Deansgate (Manchester.) My fondest recollections belong to the early days of this splendid bookshop, when things were a little chaotic and books were piled up haphazardly on the floor, or just left, invitingly, in their original boxes, as yet unpacked! There was such a buzz about the place. Author events took place on the shop floor, with folding chairs crammed in around the display tables. I have great memories of the US crime writer Sara Paretsky’s first visit, with the (at that time) little-known local author Val McDermid providing the ‘opening act’, with grace and charm, when Paretsky was delayed.
As you can see, Christina, you have set me off down a memory lane lined with bookshops! Thank you.
Charlotte, many thanks for this. I also knew Deansgate well in the Robert Topping era – he was a maverick genius, undoubtedly! I’m envious of your experiences of the early crime events there. Thanks for taking the trouble to divulge your favourites. I can understand your nostalgia! 🙂
Sadly not, the big chains secure enormous discounts from property developers (who prefer to sell them before they’ve built them; something to do with cash-flow, aka, making a profit employing other people’s money :). Doubt any bookshop or bookshop chain could justify or afford buying out such leases at the prices the big boys would exact.
That, incidentally, is why it’s difficult for small independents. By the time they get to compete for units, the property developer has covered his projected outlay handsomely and can afford to be less generous in the terms he offers to the last few tenants 😦
All very true, Philip. This is the harsh and brutal world of retail! Thanks for your insight and welcome here! 🙂