Thursday, 22 October 2009

Finding treasure at Daunt Books

On Monday, my youngest daughter had to pay a visit to a dentist on Wimpole Street.  These days, the street is lined rather prosaically with the discreet brass plaques of dentists . . . but at various points in time (real and fictional), characters as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Barrett, Professor Henry Higgins and Paul McCartney resided there.  It is one of those London places with a special frisson, at least for me.  All of those layers of history just go straight to my imagination.

Since Wimpole Street is conveniently close to one of my favorite bookstores -- the splendid Daunt Books -- I thought that a bit of book-browsing (buying, too, of course) would happily fill a spare hour or two.

I hadn't ventured far into the store before I was distracted by a display of beautifully bound Virago Modern Classics.  One of the first novels to catch my eye was 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff.  Not long ago, my daughter and I had watched this film -- with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins in the lead roles.  When I randomly opened the book, it fell upon a letter that I remembered well from the film:  Helene is speaking of her desire to visit London:  "to walk up Berkeley Square and down Wimpole Street and stand in St. Paul's where John Donne preached and sit on the step Elizabeth sat on when she refused to enter the tower . . .".  She speaks of her longing "to look for the England of English literature."

Of course I had to buy this lovely book -- which describes, so entertainingly, the transatlantic friendship forged by and through books.  If that wasn't a sign, then Wimpole street was!

Daunt Books is spread out over three floors, and in some ways it feels more like a library than a bookstore.  There are three major sections:  literary fiction, travel books and second-hand books. We were there for more than an hour, and the man with the black braces and the bald head never stirred from his seat.  Perhaps it is all of that polished wood, or the parquet floors, but it has a particular hushed quality that encourages a person not just to browse -- but to delve inside the tempting pages.

When I was browsing the catalog of Jarndyce: The Nineteenth Century Booksellers, I saw this quotation:
I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.  (Jorge Luis Borges)

Absorbed in my own book searches, I didn't notice that my daughter had disappeared; well, except for the vague sense that no one was tugging at my elbow and saying "I'm bored!"

When she finally appeared, her eyes were shining and her hands held a treasure:  a first-edition copy of Yvette in Italy and Titania's Palace, written by Nevile Wilkinson and published in 1922.  As far as I can tell, by examining the bookplates, this edition was specially made for The Children's Union (Waifs and Strays).  Apparently this was a stray copy, as there is still a perforated form in the back of the book for any child who wishes to become a Rose-Maiden of the Order of the Fairy Kiss.  The pristine quality of the copy, not to mention the still attached form, convinces me that my daughter will be the first reader to really know this book. Unfortunately, I doubt that the Order of the Fairy Kiss is still organizationally intact.

So with our bag of books -- several new ones for me, and one special old one for my daughter -- we retreated to Paul for coffee and crepes.

Although we shared occasional discoveries, mostly we sat, and read, in companionable silence.

Despite having visited London many times, my daughter has never liked it much.  Many people are energized by the frenzied activity, but she prefers less crowded places.  Like most London visitors, we have tended to travel the busy streets: Oxford Street, thronged with shoppers, and Piccadilly Circus, choked with tourists. We have pursued loud and expensive entertainments; we have attempted Hamleys during the school holidays and risked Harrods during an annual sale. My daughter has been to museums and the theatre and ice skating at Somerset House, but funnily enough, she has never walked a quiet street as London goes about its everyday business.

Despite all of our efforts to chase it down, sometimes it seems that pleasure is more easily found in a simple moment; at least I have found that to be true.   I've long known where my happiness is likely to be found, but how gratifying to discover that my daughter can find it in the same place!


Shaista said...

Dear Bee, what an absolutely delightful post, oh an utter joy to have read your piece and walked down Wimpole Street. Imagine, here I am in Cambridge, a heartbeat away from London, and I rarely visit. I just posted a rather bleak little piece, which Mum is entirely disapproving of :)
I love the book 84 CC Road, but never seen the film. I am just reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and not wanting to finish it at all. You would love it Bee, wish I could send it to you. I am so sorry to read of your friends' bereavement, but how wonderful that you are cooking for them. Love, Shaista

Sarah Laurence said...

Ah, so this is what was keeping you up so late. I must visit Daunt Books next trip to England and with you as my guide. I love balconies, high ceilings, wood cases, old books and natural light. There used to be a bookstore like that in midtown Manhattan when I was growing up. Your daughter sounds like mine too.

dogimo said...

Companionable silence: the best kind.

The Order of the Fairy Kiss - what a pity it isn't around anymore! But I fear all the wee folk have gone into twilight, taking their intoxicating glow and the glorious order of their cool kisses with them, leaving us to the enervating stolidity of our electric lamps, and to the warmer disorder of mere mortal kisses.

Which are admittedly, quite illuminating and stimulating in their own right. But alas for the loss nonetheless.

steven said...

a dreamy day - an english day of books and food and of course, the order of the fairy kiss. there's an opportunity to bring the fairies back in that isn't there!!!! have a peaceful evening. steven

Catalyst said...

I am so jealous!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

This is my favourite way to be in London. Just walking down the side streets, feeling like a local. And what a treasure trove you found. Like Ali Baba's. I am adding Daunt Books to my list for my next visit.

And that photograph of your daughter's little hand resting atop her glorious new book....magic.

rxBambi said...

I've never heard of Wimpole street, but your writing makes me long for it. Unlike your daughter tho, I love London. I love the energy, the excitement... although I think I feel it even on the lonely streets, just because it is "London" which always seems exotic, no matter how many times I've been. And even now, I'm longing to hop a plane, to tote along my umbrella and my new ankle-height rain boots, to stroll in the mist and imagine what it was like a few hundred years ago... There is so much history there as compared to the US...
Ok, done babbling. Great post...

CashmereLibrarian said...

Oh, Bee, that's such a memorable experience. Isn't it interesting how they come so unexpectedly.

I love love love every thing about 84 Charing Cross Road. It's a book I can randomly pick up and never fail to become engrossed even though I've read it a million times. A great find.

willow said...

Daunt Books seems to be the quintessential English book store. I want to go!!! I think I could spend a whole week in there with my sleeping bag and flashlight.

You must read all the Hanff books. They are all gems.

Chairman Bill said...

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.

fairyhedgehog said...

I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.

Oh yes!

What a truly magical post. For a moment there I was transported into the world of Daunt Books. I must try and visit next time I'm up in London.

Lucy said...

I love '84 Charing Cross Road', book and film. It has echoes for me in some blogging friendships. And what a beautiful bookshop is Daunts, I don't know that one.

Perhaps research some more quiet wonders of London to share with your daughter...

Cláudia said...

I have a teenage daughter, we love books, bookstores, libraries, quiet streets and, above all, a cosy coffe shop where we can drink a hot chocolate while browsing our new books. Your post is so familiar. I am so happy I have found your blog!
Oh, and I loved the film 84 CC Rd. I'm going to buy the book right now!

kristina said...

I can so relate to your daughter. I'm not good with the hustle and bustle of London. Luckily by now I've sussed out some of the quieter bits, which makes trips in easier.

Daunt Books is fabulous! Just how a book store should be. And what an amazing first-edition find!

Did you buy the Virago 84 Charing Cross Road? I have that same copy on my shelf. Would this prove we're twins?

K x

Teresa O said...

Delightful post, filled with magic, imagination, and palpable descriptions. How I long to visit a bookstore like Daunt Books or a bookseller like Marks & Company from 84 Charing Cross Road.

Reading your posts makes the longing to visit England stronger. Thank you for sharing snippets of your life.

Dumdad said...

How wonderful the simple pleasure of reading. I've been a voracious reader all my life and, luckily, both my children love reading. I've never pushed them to read, or do anything really, but they took to reading immediately so I can't remember a time when they came to me and said they were bored; if they are, they just start reading again.

I've never been to Daunt's - must go one day.

ArtSparker said...

What a wonderful experience to share with your daughter. Do you know Daisy Ashfords's "The Young Visiters"?

TheChicGeek said...

Good morning, Bee :) This is an absolutely beautiful and delightful post! I enjoyed learning about the history of Daunt Books and having the opportunity to tour it and the street through your pictures! I have just had a London vacation! Fabulous!

You are right, it is the simplest things that make us the happiest. How lovely that your daughter is so young and yet so wise to understand and appreciate this!

Hugs to You, Bee :D Thank you for sharing this! I loved it!


Fantastic Forrest said...

I would like to officially apply for the position of youngest daughter's mother in law. I'll need to speak with my son, of course, but I think he will be happy to agree to an arranged marriage to such a lovely and literary young lady.

Wonderfully evocative post, Bee, as usual. Thanks for letting us experience your special times.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved "The Characters in this Book" page.
Ask Camille if I should do this for the Jane books!
Ah Wimpole Street, as in Barretts of,
my dentist Peter Webb used to be there 30 years ago
I imagine he is long since retired......
a magic book shop

Beth said...

I can think of nothing more delightful than spending time with one of my children in a bookstore or a library sharing our love of reading – and I have done both. (At times, when they were younger, being with all three was a bit much...)
Wish I’d known of that bookstore when I was in London – I would have appreciated the quiet, the slower pace.

Anne said...

I love doing this, particularly in cities with lots of history. What a cozy way to spend a few hours!

Jan said...

Wonderful posting, Bee!
It IS such a joy when you find you have parallels with your children....and wait, m'dear, till you see the same things happen with your children and THEIR's all rather lovely!

Bee said...

Shaista - It IS wonderful browsing bookstores, but if you aren't able to - well - the book really is the thing. I loved the Guernsey book; have given it (or recommended it) to loads of people.

Sarah - We will visit Daunt Books together! You will love it.

Dogimo - How lovely, your riff on kisses.

Steven - For a visit to the dentist, it turned out to be surprisingly dreamy. There's always a bit of pleasure in playing hooky, though.

Catalyst - Sorry!

Pamela - I do hope you can visit this treasure trove someday.

rxBambi - And now I want to go shopping for ankle boots tomorrow.

CashmereLibrarian - You would adore these new editions. Famous artists/illustrators have designed the cover.

Willow - More Hanff books to look into! Yea!

Chairman Bill - I so agree, and I also know which one I prefer.

fairyhedgehog - I'm getting rather excited at the thought of so many new people discovering Daunt's!

Lucy - yes, I think that quiet wonders (and maybe even secondhand bookstores) are the way to go. Even though 84 Charing Cross Road is no longer there, I told her we could explore some of the other bookshops on that street. Also, in some ways, this book was the precursor to blogging!

Claudia - I'm glad, too. :)

Kristina - Yes, of course I bought the Virago. They are all so beautiful that I wanted the entire set. BTW, Daunt's is almost across the street from Divertimenti.

Teresa - (It's been my)"Pleasure," as they say in England. You know, I lived in London when I was 20/21 -- and then for years I would dream about it. It is probably my favorite place in the world.

Dumdad - All of the reading research shows that one of the biggest indicators for becoming a lifetime reader is having a parent who is a lifetime reader. I've just been re-reading Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris: a good example of that principle!

ArtSparker - No, but I will look it up. Thanks.

The Chic Geek - Thank you so much. My, you've made me feel good.

FF - Yes, the younger daughter may be a better match for your very special son.

Elizabeth - Yes, DEFINITELY! (I'm sure C will agree.) I have found the most lovely book, circa 1908, that I'm dying to show you.

Beth - Yes, even though a person NEEDS to see the famous touristy things, it is also good to get a break from them. Clearly, the only solution is for you to visit London again.

Anne - And you would like the French cafe, too!

Jan - Well, we are struggling through adolescent pains right now, but your words are very cheering.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Here's to the thrill of the chase! And of course, to the love of books :-)

Seeing Daunt Books again reminds me of the lovely--and sadly the last-- day we were in London together.


Bee said...

JAPRA - I know; I thought of you when we were there. I do feel sad that you aren't around for London jaunts anymore. C and I are going to explore the second-hand scene (what's left of it) around Charing Cross now.

herhimnbryn said...

Glorious day with your daughter B.

I have bookshop envy now.

Maggie May said...

Oh my gosh I REALLY wish I had been there with you! How marvelous.

Anonymous said...

I love spending a few hours with my daughter in the book store every Sunday. It's been our thing to do for the past year.

Dan Holloway said...

I have never been to Daunt, but now I must. What a wonderful looking and sounding place. And I know those Virago classic editions - they are beautiful - in fact there are more and more editions coming out that are beautiful things in themselves.

kristina said...

that bookshop looks wonderful! I love bookshops. Helene Hanff has written a wonderful book about New York, "The apple of my eye", which I kept thinking about when I was there.
you'll love her books, I'm sure!

Bee said...

herhimnbryn - so many marvellous things in the countryside, but a person does miss the good bookshops!

Maggie May - I know that you would adore this kind of place.

Tabitha - Always a good way to wile away the hours.

Dan Holloway - Yes, I've noticed that too. I suppose it is how hand-held books will fight against the Kindle and its like.

Kristina - Thanks for the tip. I ADORE books about NYC . . . especially when they are set in the first five decades of the 20th century.

B said...

I must visit this bookshop next time we're in London! I'm so glad your daughter found the "real" London and loved it!

Christina said...

oh sweetheart, this is a beautiful, beautiful post. Do you know, I have tears in my eyes? oh how I would love to visit a 3 story bookstore. books take me away. ever since i was a little girl.
i am so glad you got a chance to spend time with your daughter. that's a sweet deal- especially after the dentist ; )

Stephanie said...

This is such a beautiful post...I loved 84 Charing Cross Road, the movie, have not read the book. So touching that you and your daughter spent this lovely time together, and took us along as well!


Anna said...

Bee what a wonderful and precious time with your daughter. I used to, yes I used to spend lot of time in the libraries and bookstores. May be in the few years I will recover and do the same with my Matthew. But never know, may be it will be earlier, since at age of year and a half, he is fascinated with letters, and spells every where we go, lol. I am slowly adjusting myself to classics, as I used to love technical reference books, lol. Thanks for sharing your beautiful day, it was very nice relaxing day, and relaxing time for me.... Anna :)

A Cuban In London said...

I, too, felt the same way about Daunt Books the only time I visited it. Unlike you, I had no reference to it whatsoever and thought I had strolled into a library by mistake. The staff were most helpful and the place looked spotless. Maybe I'm due for another visit especially as we're going to central London soon.

Greetings from London.

Bee said...

Today, when we were at another dentist -- our local one this time -- I read the October 7 edition of Country Life magazine. They named Daunt as one of the ten best shops to visit in London!

Kristen In London said...

Oh, Bee, we were just in Daunt this week! One of the helpers there is a lovely man I had quite a crush on who helped with my daughter's nearby school's book fair! There was never, in that shop, a lack of expertise, love, nay OBSESSION with books. The perfect atmosphere for mothers, daughters, and the life between the pages. Thank you for this lovely description.

Emm said...

That shop looks like paradise!!! I could quite possibly die and go to heaven there! And crepes at Pauls? Sounds like even more paradise.

SE'LAH... said...

What an awesome post. That sure is a delightful photo...all those books. glorious.

Bee said...

Kristen - Daunt's helped with your daughter's book fair? Sigh.

Emm - This is the perfect Christmas shopping outing, don't you think? There are lots of other gorgeous shops on the street, too.

Emm said...

I agree - I think I'll have to make a turn this year!