107 Reasons to Love Foyles of Charing Cross Road

In Feature Articles by Roger Tagholm


In appreciation of the reopening of London’s most famous bookshop, Foyles of Charing Cross Road, we look back on its history and into its future 107 ways.

By Roger Tagholm

London’s most famous bookshop, perhaps the world’s most famous bookshop – Foyles of Charing Cross Road – has been reborn, albeit just a few yards away. It’s still on Charing Cross Road, of course (Foyles is Charing Cross Road after all), but in new, larger premises where ‘a bookshop for the 21st century is promised.’

Saturday, June 7, is the grand unveiling. So, in appreciation of this new foray into the future, let’s list some of the reasons to love this great London institution.

City gents browsing Foyles' outside stock then...

City gents browsing Foyles’ outside stock then…

...and Foyles today and the new shop at 107.

…and Foyles today and the new shop at 107.

  1. Well, we’ve just stated it, but let’s do so again: it is the world’s most famous bookshop.
  2. It’s a London landmark, practically Trafalgar Square with shelves.
  3. It’s a fantastic survivor.The left wing specialists Collets used to be next door, eventually becoming Waterstones. Collets closed in 1993 and Waterstones moved out in 2001.Borders used to be opposite, but is now TK-Maxx. Borders collapsed in 2009. And now even Blackwell’s, just down the road, is set to move.
  4. It’s a reassuring constant in the book industry’s swirl.
  5. It has made a commitment to this famous ‘street of books’
  6. It’s an indie in the centre of London!
  7. It’s 111-years young!
  8. The history, the history, the history!OMG the history!
  9. The anecdotes, the anecdotes, the anecdotes!OMG the anecdotes!
  10. The lore!
  11. The legend!!Where to begin with all the above?There’s only one place of course…
  12. ….that legendary payment system.Explanatory note for younger readers. Foyles’ bizarre payment system required customers to collect a bill from the assistant, take it to a payment booth and then return it to the assistant to collect the books. The theory was that the less people who handled the money, the better.The generation that remembers this firsthand is now diminishing, but this eccentric system has passed into book trade lore
  13. The old shop-floor signs.The payment system led to much misunderstanding and many fabulous signs erected by staff to help.One ran: ‘READ THIS: YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE EDUCATION DEPT.PLEASE GET A BLL FROM THE DESK – BACK AND AROUND TO THE LEFT’.
  14. There was also a Tolkein poster on which a Hobbit whispered: ‘Psst!Is this the way to the Stairs?’This was a shop in which people would get lost.
  15. And lost in the books too: the old store was the Citizen Kane of bookshops.Some departments resembled those famous opening scenes where everything is in a jumble.The place was a book-lined Xanadu.No one found a sledge but…
  16. …during the refit after owner Christina Foyle’s death in 1999 they did find a lift that nobody knew they had.
  17. Yes, that’s how chaotic it was: they misplaced a lift.
  18. It was also a shop in which people died.One gentleman dropped dead in the store in the Thirties and another in 1985.At least they didn’t have to work out how to pay.
  19. Foyles, its old in-house staff magazine, once ran this story: ‘LOST PROPERTY’: Found, Paul Potter of Maida Vale, after wandering for an hour trying to find his way out.’
  20. The historic employment practices.Hard to love the store for this, but they do elicit a smile of disbelief.Funny how some injustices have a cosy glow of nostalgia about them with the passage of the years.Time was when staff were regularly dismissed before they’d worked there six months to avoid any staff rights that came into force at that point.Thankfully, those days are over.
  21. From the Staff Rules in 1985 (1985!!): ‘Employment is on a weekly basis’
  22. One exasperated customer once described the shop like this: ‘Imagine if Kafka had gone into the book trade…’
  23. In fact, Kafka is one of the few authors who doesn’t seem to have visited the store.Those who have come through the doors though include Graham Greene, JB Priestley, Hillaire Belloc, Enid Blyton, HE Bates, Arnold Wesker, Laurie Lee, Dick Francis, Wilbur Smith…it’s a very long list.
  24. In the 1920s, when George Bernard Shaw moved from his apartment at the Adelphi on the river, it was Foyles that bought his surplus books.
  25. But when he agreed to speak at a Foyles Luncheon his subject was the protection of birds. That was fine …only chicken was served.
  26. Like so much about the shop, the Foyles Luncheons were legendary too. They ran from 1930 to 2010 and have seen an extraordinary roll-call of speakers: Jimmy Durante, Lauren Bacall, Charlie Chaplin, Philip Roth, Enid Blyton, Arthur Koestler, Bertand Russell….
  27. In 1952, Jimmy Durante told guests: ‘I took a trip to France…and picked up an Italian newspaper.I saw in every column ‘Durante’.So right away I got the scissors out and started clipping.I must have clipped the whole newspaper, because every column had ‘Durante’. Finally, I got someone to tell me what it was, and I found out that the word meant ‘during’.’
  28. The store survived the Blitz, but only just.A bomb narrowly missed the shop and left an enormous crater outside. The army hastily erected a construction over it, nicknamed ‘the Foyle Bridge.’
  29. In the early days of the Third Reich, the shop’s co-founder William Foyle heard that Hitler intended to have all Jewish books burnt. He sent the Fuhrer a telegram offering to buy them. Hitler replied: ‘Would no sooner corrupt the morals of the English than the Germans.’
  30. It gets better.In 1939, his daughter Christina Foyle invited Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin to speak at a Foyles luncheon, though not at the same time. This sounds like the beginning of a joke: “There was Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin…”A newspaper report ran: ‘Hitler replied that it would be an honor to speak at a literary luncheon but that he had urgent business which kept him in Germany – that was just before September. Mussolini replied that she could hardly expect the head of the Italian State to come to a literary luncheon in London at the present time, but when things quietened down he might be visiting this country.Stalin did not reply.’
  31. It has an archive to drool over, with letters from Upton Sinclair, George Bernard Shaw, Ian Fleming, Cecil B DeMille, TS Eliot and Siegfried Sassoon, to name just a few.
  32. In 1945, Foyle wrote to Shaw asking if he could spare a photo for a client who was opening a bookshop in New Zealand.Shaw scrawled a reply: ‘If they don’t want it enough to buy one they can do without.Why bother me about it?’
  33. Christina Foyle started a Right Book Club, to counter the Left Book Club already in existence. Upton Sinclair declined to join, writing: ‘I am a Socialist and have been for thirty-five years or so.’
  34. Cecil B de Mille wrote: ‘Book-lovers all over the world know of “Foyles”, but you have added to my regard for that venerable institution a warmly personal feeling of gratitude for the honor done me by your invitation to address the Luncheon of November 1st and the opportunity thus given me to meet, in such congenial surroundings, so many leaders of London’s life and thought.’
  35. Declining an invitation to celebrate ‘the publication of Maurice Girodias’ books by the New English Library’, and of Girodias visiting England, Vladimir Nabokov wrote: ‘I am not on speaking terms with Mr. Girodias and he is well aware of it.’
  36. Siegfried Sassoon declined to be a patron of the Right Book Club, arguing that he wasn’t an authority on politics or economics.He added: ‘But it would be rude to refuse, so you can make use of my name if you wish to. Why not start a Poetry Book Club?’
  37. These letters can be seen in a small, superb exhibition in Foyles’ current Gallery and will continue for a while in the new shop’s exhibition space.
  38. A letter from the USA once asked for the address of Ben Jonson ‘to discuss film rights to Volpone’.
  39. For many years the store had a wandering apostrophe. It said Foyle’s above on entrance; Foyles above another
  40. William Foyle, who founded the original store with his brother Gilbert, once said: ‘More important than reviews or advertisements for the making of a bestseller is word-of-mouth recommendation.Best of all is praise or denunciation from a church pulpit.’ Plus ca change…
  41. Many UK publishers began their book trade life at the iconic store, among them Bill Clinton’s UK editor, Sue Freestone of Hutchinson fame, and Helen Fraser, who was MD of Penguin until 2009.
  42. There used to be a lady called Erica who pushed the tea trolley for staff. Customers would buy from her too. When she finally retired, the store discovered her takings amounted to £160,000.
  43. Telephone conversation overheard in the shop: ‘I should love to help you, but I’m Philosophy. Religion has gone to lunch.”
  44. An anecdote, probably apocryphal, in the same vein.The shop was famous for employing many foreign staff with interesting names. Overhead conversation:“Do you have Ulysses?” “I’m sorry.He’s on his break right now.”
  45. The glorious flag, London’s equivalent of Barnes & Noble’s flag in Manhattan.
  46. In 1952, Willard May and Horatio Nichols wrote ‘Christina’s Waltz’.How many booksellers have had songs written about them?
  47. It rescued and gave a home to Ray’s Jazz Shop, a West End institution which sadly closed in 2002.
  48. It did the same for Silver Moon, the feminist bookshop just down the road.
  49. And it bought the foreign language specialist Grant & Cutler, now incorporated into the foreign language department where you will find such Foyles staples as those famous, green, Loeb Classical Library titles which have been a Foyles mainstay for ever.
  50. At some point in the Seventies it began taking credit cards. We know this because General Pinochet spent £15,000 on his American Express in the store.
  51. Talking of dictators, General Franco was a member of the Foyles Book Club.
  52. The store used to sell books by weight, at tuppence a pound.One trade journal sniffed that this was ‘trading better suited to greengrocery”.
  53. The cool neon sign!
  54. The sections, the sections, the sections! Foyles is a series of specialist shops beneath one roof.
  55. The medical department sells Diagnostic Hammers, Stethoscopes and Aneroid Sphygmomanometers. Yes, really.
  56. And surgical Scrub suits.
  57. Let us now praise famous section headings: just this past month we have enjoyed…
  58. Conflict Resolution (sorry, no titles on Amazon v Hachette here)…
  59. Geotechnical Engineering…
  60. Anarchism…
  61. Activism…
  62. ….and, best of all, Plumbing Etc.It’s the ‘Etc’ that does it.
  63. The music department has drawer after drawer containing individual pieces and sheet music books. They look like the drawers in morgues.
  64. The department sells the blank score of John Cage’s 4’33” published by Edition Peters
  65. The staff survivors! Raise a glass, please, to Giles Armstrong, Manager of the Foreign Languages department, who joined the store back in 1965. He’s still there, his booming voice a familiar sound to regular customers. Next year will mark his half-century at the shop.
  66. The new shop will have 4 miles of shelves…about the same distance people used to have to walk to pay in the old days boom-boom!
  67. This distance is long enough to line the Thames with books, from Battersea Power Station to the Tower of London.
  68. That’s nothing – in the old days, the books that had fallen down the back of the shelves would have done the same!
  69. A magazine called the Alternative Bookseller once published a guide to the shop’s many blind spots, an aide memoire for shoplifters.
  70. In Melvyn Bragg’s biography of Richard Burton, Rich, the actor described how, when he was at Oxford, he used to go to London and steal books from ‘the giant Foyles.’
  71. Tim Waterstone once described the shop as a “jewel.”
  72. After one of the senior Foyles retired, his office was being refurbished and they discovered, lurking under the floor, a large cache of letters from all parts of the world requesting obscure books and often enclosing rupees, rials, escudos, rubles etc. Apparently, he liked to deal with the incoming post, but anything he found a bit too challenging or problematic he simply shoved down a crack in the flooboards. Like so many Foyle stories, this is probably a gross exaggeration, yet contains an emotional truth that captures the essence of the place.
  73. One might describe the great store as a book Titanic – and there is a connection here too.Captain Lightoller was the only surviving officer of the Titanic. His daughter, Mavis, was Christina Foyle’s bridesmaid in 1938.
  74. Indeed, on a winter’s night the store appears like a great ocean liner, its windows of promise puncturing the darkness, the swish of buses on the wet road outside like waves breaking across the decks….
  75. Sorry, Foyles can have this effect on you.
  76. The new shop promises a 200-seater auditorium.
  77. Ray’s Jazz department is moving across to the new store.Staffers from the original Ray’s co-authored the supercool series from Collins & Brown/Chronicle Books that includes The Cover Art of Blue Note and Coast to Coast Album Covers: Classic Record Art from New York to LA.
  78. Let us now praise famous customers.Browsers in the shop in 1950 included Noel Coward, Dorothy Sayers, John Gielgud and Terence Ratigan.
  79. And 1960 saw Orson Welles, Aaron Copland, Ian Fleming and Tom Lehrer.
  80. Noel Coward always claimed that the inspiration for Cavalcade came from some old volumes he had found on Foyles’ shelves.
  81. Walt Disney was often seen browsing among the art books.
  82. Much of the material here has come from Foyles a Celebration by former Bookseller Deputy Editor Penny Mountain.How many bookshops have had their own book written about them?
  83. In the early Nineties, the receipts used to say ‘Stock of over five million volumes’, but on its stationery, the letterhead said ‘Stock of four million volumes’.Some would not have been surprised if the store had simply misplaced a million books.
  84. Well, number 84 Charing Cross Road is still famous in a way, but it’s 107 that will keep alive the book flame on the road now.And Helene Hanff would surely approve.
  85. One staffer told London’s Midweek magazine: ‘Some people just bin the books they can’t sell.I once saw a lady from the café opposite going through our rubbish and getting very excited because she kept finding all these books.’
  86. Ken Pyne, whose work has appeared in Punch and Private Eye, once drew a cartoon of a bearded, desperate, Robinson Crusoe-type figure crawling out of the shop on all fours, his clothes in tatters.He is holding aloft a hardback.“I found the book I was looking for!” he exclaims.
  87. The new shop will champion bricks and mortar bookselling in a building that itself has an impressive brick frontage – and a gorgeous atrium.
  88. The British poet Wendy Cope once wrote a parody of Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’ entitled ‘Foyled’. ‘Yes, I remember Foyles – too well – /Because, one Saturday in June,/I went to buy some books and stood/The whole confounded afternoon…’
  89. How many bookshops have had poems written about them?
  90. The Dillons chain that rose in the Eighties and Nineties once had an ad campaign with the famous line: ‘Foyled again? Try Dillons’.
  91. But Foyles had the last laugh of course. Dillons fell in 1995.
  92. Occasionally it received letters simply addressed: ‘Foyle’s, Largest Bookshop of the World, London, England’
  93. The shop has had the occasional problem with pigeons coming n through the central stairwell around which the existing shop is built. At one point they were even nesting in the ceiling.
  94. But make no mistake – these were among the most well read pigeons in the capital.
  95. One is tempted to paraphrase Johnson and say: ‘A man who is tired of Foyles, is tired of life’.
  96. Just as Christina Foyle lived above the old shop, it will be possible to live above the new shop. St Martin’s Lofts is a residential development above the new store offering high quality loft apartments. These apartments will have the most learned ‘basements’ imaginable.
  97. It is the sort of shop you go to because they might have it.
  98. It’s the sort of shop you go to because you’ll find something you’ve never heard of – even if you work in the industry.
  99. The fiction department has a dizzying number of bays.
  100. A roll of the drums now please to celebrate…100 years bookselling on Charing Cross Road, a landmark it achieved in 2006.The brothers, William and Gilbert Foyle opened their first shop in Cecil Court, just off Charing Cross Road in 1904, and moved to 135 Charing Cross Road in 1906.
  101. In a piece in the shop’s Foylibra magazine, William Foyle outlined his ‘Aims as a Bookseller’. One was: ‘To have premises at least 100 feet long and 100 feet wide and, say, 50 feet high, with a gallery round and a glass dome roof similar to Cole’s Great Book Arcade in Melbourne Australia.’The latter closed in 1929.Another example of how Foyles has endured.
  102. He also wanted ‘To supply almost any Book, in print or out of print’. With its many book clubs it pretty much managed to achieve this, operating – dare one say it – like a kind of low-tech Amazon distribution centre at one point. William’s grandson, Christopher Foyle, who is company Chairman, remembers a “teaming place. We employed about 350 people then. We had ten book clubs with a quarter-of-a-million members and all the books were sent out from the shop. We’d get 20 sacks of mail a day and you’d have 30 clerks on the second floor sitting at a long table, slitting letters open….”
  103. If you want a hardback of Leaves of Grass say, this is the place.
  104. The Foyles name has spread, discretely, to some bespoke locations, such as St. Pancras International, and a handful of other locations.But the mothership remains firmly in Charing Cross Road.
  105. Its continuing existence is part of UK history.
  106. All credit to CEO Sam Husain for bravely inviting the book trade to consult on ‘the bookshop of the future’ in a series of workshops organized by Foyles and the Bookseller last year.In some senses the new store belongs to all of us.
  107. The novelist Sarah Waters says: “Foyles has been a feature of London’s literary landscape for more than a hundred years, a bookshop with a special place in the affections of writers and readers alike.”

She’s right.God bless the place and may she sail on and prosper throughout this century – and beyond.

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).