16 May 2018

Happy Birthday to Us! The London Review Bookshop Turns Fifteen

Posted by David Lea

Fifteen years ago, the London Review of Books took the momentous – some said foolish – decision to open an independent bookshop. In just a few short weeks, working according to a brief from the LRB’s chief designer Peter Campbell, a team of architects, builders, shopfitters and booksellers transformed a rather dark and dreary site on a somewhat neglected backstreet in Bloomsbury into a sunlit, spacious home for 20,000 books, six dedicated staff, and, we hoped, an array of local authors and most importantly readers.

We weren’t disappointed. Over the years, we’ve welcomed several Nobel Laureates as speakers, customers and friends, notably Seamus Heaney, Kazuo Ishiguro, Doris Lessing and J.M.G Le Clézio. They’ve been joined by some of the world’s greatest poets, including Michael McClure, Ruth Padel, J.H. Prynne, Kathleen Jamie, Ocean Vuong and Anne Carson. Open to all manifestations of intellectual life, we’ve also enjoyed appearances by musicians such as Jarvis Cocker, Carrie Brownstein and Patti Smith, scientists like Marcus du Sautoy and Peter Atkins, and a constellation of philosophers, film-makers, politicians, novelists and thinkers.

The biggest stars, though, have been the books – and the people who buy and read them. The identity of the first book we sold is now shrouded in the mists of time, but a likely, entirely worthy, if slightly unexpected candidate seems to be The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Whatever the title of that first sacred volume, it has been followed out of the door by well over a million others. Some of them have been written by bookshop staff – John Clegg, Lily Blacksell and Daniel Eltringham have all published volumes of poetry while working at Bury Place. Others have come from staff at the magazine – Joanna Biggs, Anna Swan, Mary-Kay Wilmers and Sam Kinchin-Smith have all seen their books on the tables and shelves at the shop. Those million books have been accompanied out of the door by countless bags (plastic, paper and cloth), by mugs, notebooks, pencils, mousemats and cards, and, we hope, by many devoted and delighted readers.

A lot has changed in fifteen years. We’ve added a brilliant Cake Shop and café, a children’s section, and a boutique basement cinema. We’ve learned a lot about ‘social media’ and created a rather unique style of anarchic mischief-making on Twitter. The bookshop staff have personally added three youngsters to our customer base, the oldest of whom is almost ten, the youngest just over ten months. What hasn’t changed at all, though, is our love of books, of reading, of authors and of readers. If you are able to join us in Bury Place, we look forward to finding you the books you know you need, and more importantly, the ones you didn’t know you needed.