diamond geezer

 Thursday, May 29, 2014

For as long as Londoners can remember, which in this case is 1906, Foyles have been selling books on the Charing Cross Road. Their first shop was at number 135, now vanished beneath a Crossrail building site, and their next at 121, which would later become the very first branch of Waterstones. Here they stayed until 1929 before hopping across the road into new premises at 113-119, which grew up into a labyrinthine behemoth stuffed with books of every kind. And now Foyles are on the move again, heading a few doors down Charing Cross Road to number 107, which was formerly part of Central St Martins College of Art and Design. A new flagship store is ready to open, or at least will be once they've transferred all the existing stock out of the current shop and into the new one. The big move, which is a mammoth task, is scheduled for the first week and a bit of June. And that means this Saturday, 31st May, is your last chance to poke round the existing building before the doors shut and it becomes something else.

There's a lot to poke around. In the older part of the building a diminutive staircase curls around the liftshaft, connecting all floors. Things have thankfully changed somewhat from the autocratic reign of Christina Foyle when books were ordered by publisher rather than subject, and when paying was an oblique two-stage process. There's some sense in the arrangements now, with departments spread across a variety of oddly shaped rooms or the open-plan structure of the rear extension. The top floor has a diverse musical flavour, and probably some light instrumental in the background, while the historians have established a sturdy bridgehead on the second. Know where you're going and you might find the cafe, or even the temporary 75% off book sale in the basement. If you've only ever pootled about the ground floor, in and out, you've missed a lot.

To commemorate Foyles' imminent departure, a very small exhibition is underway in the third floor gallery - a room which looks like a suspended village hall. The store's archivist has dug out some letterheads, some adverts and a lovely series of photos from eight decades of literary luncheons. Doesn't Ian Fleming look nervous, and what a lovely hat Dame Agatha Christie is wearing. Alongside are "sorry no I cannot attend" letters from refuseniks like Noel Coward and Arnold Wesker, as well as thankyou letters from such eminent speakers as Sir John Betjeman. It's not much to see, but it's a nice touch, and something extra if you're coming for a last farewell. The new building promises more floorspace, which is impressive in a world of declining book sales, and will be opening with a bang with a fortnight-long literary festival. But if you were after one last look round the literary warren, to remember Foyles as it long used to be, you need to get down before the end of the week.

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