Yesterday, we had the pleasure of filming in London’s historic Cecil Court.
This feels like the icing on the cake to me. We’ve filmed in some atmospheric and diverse bookshops so far, all of which are genuinely special in their own ways, but Cecil Court occupies a unique place in the history of English bookshops.
It is possible that you may never have heard of Cecil Court, or may be unaware that the whole Charing Cross area (a pigeon’s flap away from Trafalgar Square) is a hive of independent bookshops. But it is. And it was throughout the whole of the twentieth century. Fashions, technologies and world wars have come and gone (as indeed have high street book chains) but Cecil Court has remained. It is a time capsule of late Victorian shop fronts; a chocolate box alleyway, lined with inviting windows displaying rare antique books and modern first editions alike.
I visited London several times through the years before I was even aware of Cecil Court. Somehow I managed to miss it on each trip, which seems ridiculous now, but it’s true. Then I read Helene Hanff’s magical ’84 Charing Cross road’ (a book comprising the real correspondence between its eccentric USA-bound author and the London bookshop of the title between 1949 and 1969) and was compelled to pursue a pilgrimage to the eponymous shop . . . which is now a pizza place.
Cecil Court is just off Charing Cross road, and its shops have largely avoided the fate of Marks & Co at number 84. But at the very edge of Cecil Court, a garish burger bar called Byron intrudes ominously on the period scenery, as if a multi-coloured fast food joint has fallen through a time portal and landed in Victorian London. You can turn your back on it, and imagine its not there. But the paranoia whispers that one day, maybe we will have to ignore more than just Byron. Maybe we’ll have to ignore a Starbuck’s as well . . . and a Subway or two . . . perhaps a gaggle of mobile phone shops.
Maybe one day there will be just one left: The Last Bookshop. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Of course, our little film is all about exploring that imagined future on a larger scale: not just the last bookshop in Cecil Court, but the last one in the world. Perhaps more importantly, our film is also about exploring what is captivating about bookshops now, and recognising that heritage.
As with Hall’s in Tunbridge Wells, Cecil Court is the perfect embodiment of this history. It is mind boggling to think, for example, that Watkins Books was established in the 1890s, and has been trading from 21 Cecil Court continuously since 1901. The same bookshop we can visit today could also have been visited every week right back to the year Queen Victoria died.
Cecil Court connects us with our past, preserving a little bit of a London that is otherwise almost gone. To me, this seems most tangible in David Drummond’s aptly-named shop ‘Pleasures of Past Times.’ In David’s own words, the shop is “festooned with the ephemera of show business including famous performers of the past.” The posters and bills of shows long since retired from the stage peer down at you, replete with smiling sepia faces from silent films and music halls. You can smell the greasepaint, feel the warmth of the limelight . . . until a sign on the counter regarding obtrusive mobile phone calls brings you crashing back to the modern day.
Hopefully, ‘The Last Bookshop’ will portray the magic and splendour of these terrific shops. But the truth can still be found around Charing Cross. And as people question the relevance of bookshops (and indeed books) in the modern marketplace, here we can still enjoy what we might one day be missing.
In particular, our Cecil Court filming has taken place in Goldsboro Books (specialists in signed first editions) and in David Drummond’s shop ‘Pleasures of Past Times.’ Both splendid establishments, worthy of your custom. We would like to thank the Davids twain for their help.