A Tale of the Unexpected

A Tale of the Unexpected

For five years I was a shopkeeper. This was longer than my enemies (and friends) expected. Even the pleasant surroundings of Cecil Court were powerless to detain me any longer; my accountant also had views on the subject, and I had no hesitation in assigning my lease as soon as two reliable people could be found to take it on. Now I work from home, and from a Dickensian dungeon (although Dickens would have approved of the spacious Peabody flats above it): but, for a few months, delusions of grandeur remained, and I rented an Office. 

It was a temporary arrangement, and the landlords were good to me. They were refurbishing the premises, which were just around the corner at 30 Charing Cross Road, a tall building dating (I suppose) from around 1910. It was part of the deal that I would move from floor to floor as the work progressed: this led to some unusual expedients, such as enormous lengths of telephone extension cable, but I had a capable assistant. The rooms were light and pleasant, and it was not even very expensive (the rent, that is, not the rates). Although the ground floor has long been occupied by a delicatessen to whose charms I seem to be (uniquely) immune, there was something about the spirit of the place which seemed to welcome books and booksellers. Rational in many respects, I have often been receptive to what is now termed ‘psychogeography’, and something about this spot was oddly appealing.

It didn’t last. One of those sudden shortages of London office space resulted in the landlord receiving a substantial offer for the lease on the whole building, and - after a settlement more generous than our agreement strictly called for - I packed my books and left. It had been an agreeable few months, but it was over.

Years later, however, I found a reference to the building - or, rather, a previous building on the site - which seemed to me to be not entirely without interest for the students of local book trade history and, indeed, the byways of Victorian literature. The story is a simple enough one: the shop, before the Charing Cross Road was redeveloped, had once been a bookshop, started by a German immigrant who also engaged in publishing. One of the works produced under his imprint would have looked slight by any standards: a rich customer, with time on his hands, had produced (at his own expense, not that of the bookseller) some 250 copies of his anonymous translation of a number of ‘oriental’ verses found in the library of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta. Unsurprisingly, these had not sold well (both author and title were close to unpronounceable) and, within a couple of years, they were relegated to the ‘penny box’ outside what was then no. 16, Castle Street. Even at that price, trade in the pamphlets was not initially brisk: but the poems were enjoyed by a few customers, among them two young Irishmen, a philologist named Whitley Stokes and a translator called John Ormsby. They gave copies to some of their literary friends, and the work gradually acquired a modest succès d’estime: so much so, in fact, that within seven years the bookseller/publisher had put the price of the pamphlet up to an altogether more bullish three shillings and sixpence.

In a more rationally organised parallel universe, all these stories would have ended there. The German immigrant - who had started his business with a capital of only £70, not a substantial sum even at the time - would have retired into obscurity, commemorated perhaps by a handful of lightweight catalogues and forgotten publications; his name would have survived as a footnote to the history of Marx and Engels, for whose Neue Rheinische Zeitung he was, briefly and improbably, the English correspondent, but that is about all. As for the idea that the Persian poetry would ever have a wider appeal … well, what would be the chances of that? And yet, and yet … Happily, not everything in life turns out as predicted by the level-headed: Click Here.

Angus O'Neill (Omega Bookshop)

Reprinted with permission from the Unto the Ends of the Earth blog of Tim Bryars.