Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Changes on Charing Cross Road

Here's a great article in the Guardian about the changes that Charing Cross Road has gone through due to the closures of bookshops and the encroachment of other neighborhoods. It comes with two interactive maps: one depicting the location of stores on Charing Cross roughly 40 years ago (the map doesn't say exactly what year they are depicting) and one depicting today. If you click on the colored boxes, you'll get great historical photos. You could buy books by the pound back then. Note: don't click your Back button to get back to the map, because it'll send you all the way back to the very beginning; click on the Return arrow at the bottom of the photo. It takes a little time to load, too.

I love the movie 84 Charing Cross Road. It's a combination of the things I cherish: bookstores, history, England, Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. When I first learned about the movie and the book it was based on (by Helene Hanff), I was amazed that they were able to make an interesting movie about nothing but correspondence between two people. (The book, by the way, is nothing but the letters, nothing else. No narration at all). Of course, the book and movie are so much more. If you're a lover of independent bookstores, you know what I'm talking about.

My grandfather worked in a few bookstores in the Oakland and Berkeley area in the 1950s and 1960s. The last one that I know of was on Telegraph, almost directly across from Moe's Books. This is a photo of Mary, Grandpa's wife, at what may be that store. It's now (or at least a few years ago, the last time I was there) a kind of 'bath and body' soap store. Grandpa would probably roll over in his grave knowing that his beloved books - covering such robust and gritty subjects as Westerns, American History, politics, and authors such as Jack London - have been replaced by rejuvinating shower gel and salt scrub.

Getting back to bookstores in England, there was some discussion recently in one of my online groups about how bookstores in England don't have some of the amenities that the chain stores here in the U.S. have: namely the big soft chairs, the built-in coffee shops and the opportunity to just buy a latte and sit in one of those huge pillowy chairs and fall asleep (pretending to be reading a book that you're going to buy, of course). Apparently they don't have that in England and some of the online members were lamenting over it. Don't get me wrong, I think the idea of having the chairs and Starbucks in the stores is a good thing -- if it keeps people coming to bookstores and staying in them. But personally, I'd rather have an independent store where I can buy a book and then be able to wander down the block to a local cafe or coffee shop where I can read my newly purchased guilty pleasure. Maybe the bookstores on Charing Cross should install coffee machines and/or tea kettles and a few wingback chairs. It's no guarantee that it will rejuvinate their business, but it couldn't hurt. I'm being facetious, of course - we all know it's not as easy as all that. I hear that amazon.com had an amazing quarter last year, and I'm not surprised.

Special thanks to Andrew Porter for the tip on the Charing Cross article.