The Booksellers | Farringdon Road

Forget the market under Waterloo Bridge. Farringdon Road was the original hot spot for London’s book stalls and the famous writers who loved to rummage through them says Philippa Lewis…

In that dimly remembered time before the internet and websites like Alibris enabled you to buy a desirable volume straight from the shelf of a secondhand book shop in Salford, St Ives or even the Shetland Islands, it was off to Farringdon Road that bibliophiles went on a Saturday. For Farringdon Road was famous for its bookstalls. They were even compared to those on the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris, and were piled with the “flotsam of literature” as a 1926 volume entitled Wonderful London stated, with an “appearance of extreme impermanence”. The London stalls seem to have first materialized around 1869, shortly after Farringdon Road was completed, enlivening and filling the space in front of the blank wall backing onto the railway line, south of Cowcross Street.

One of the original dealers was James Dabbs, “a very intelligent man who started in the hot chestnut line” (W. Roberts, The Book-Hunter in London, 1895) and was well known for his stock of the several thousand books he displayed daily on four or five barrows. Dabbs’s starting price was two books for a penny; he claimed that he made the greatest profit from theological titles.

The market was thriving up until the second world war. In The Street Marketsof London (1938), the author Mary Benedetta describes the scene thus: “the same little group stands there side by side for hours, searching, reading, their eyes appraising all the different qualities of each volume. The rain drips on their shoulders off the canvas roof, soaking them to the skin, but they never notice. Time means nothing to them. It is forgotten. They are all under the same spell – the romance and glamour of old books.”

‘John Betjeman, Spike Milligan and Iain Sinclair all foraged among the books, maps, old newspapers and magazines’

It was this same spell that gets Oliver Twist into trouble when just off Clerkenwell Green the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates steal the oblivious Mr Brownlow’s handkerchief: “He had taken up a book from the stall, and there he stood, reading away, as hard as if he were in his elbow-chair, in his own study . . . for it was plain, from his abstraction, that he saw not the bookstall, nor the street, nor the boys, nor, in short, anything but the book itself: which he was reading straight through.”

No descriptions of the stalls are without accompanying tales of great finds, of rare books and first editions. C. A. Prance wrote in 1964: “from the barrows I have almost completed my set of The Yellow Book” (John Lane’s literary periodical founded in 1894, famous for its ‘decadent’ illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley). Original Byron letters fell out of a book bought by a New Zealand dealer. Even the earliest printed books dating from the mid-16th century could be found. John Betjeman, Geoffrey Grigson, Spike Milligan and Iain Sinclair were all habitués foraging among not only the books, but original drawings, prints, maps, old newspapers and magazines. Hilary and Mary Evans would frequently visit on Saturdays in the 1960s and ’70s scouring the stalls for images for their famous commercial picture library, which in turn were reproduced by the publishers of Bloomsbury and newspapers of Fleet Street.

By the mid-1990s the bookstalls had shrunk to a handful, all run by George Jeffery, the third generation of his family to trade there. When opening up in the morning, he would slowly peel back the tarpaulin, tantalizing the customers and causing fierce competition among them. Drif ‘s Guide to Second-hand Books noted in 1992, that Farringdon Road was “for Gladiators only, but worth seeing for the Saturday morning fights.” When Jeffrey died in 1994 and the council raised the rent for the pitch, his son called it a day – and so ended book-trading in Farringdon Road.