Mirabile dictu! Another new shop! – the second post on the blog in a row to celebrate one, although once again the use of the word ‘new’ perhaps needs more than a grain of qualification.
I suppose Pickering & Chatto can actually trace its history back to that day in 1810 when William Pickering (1796-1854) was apprenticed to the book trade at the age of fourteen – certainly to 1820 when he first set up in business for himself. Andrew Chatto (1840-1913) came later – he acquired the Pickering business on the death of Pickering’s son, Basil Montagu Pickering, in 1878.
What is nowadays Pickering’s sister firm, Marlborough Rare Books, is a mere stripling in comparison, founded as recently as 1947 – but that’s still stretching ‘new’ a little far. What is genuinely ‘new’ is that the two firms have recently descended from their eyrie high above Bond Street – an office accessible by the smallest lift I’ve ever encountered – a 12mo of an elevator – to emerge blinking into the sunlight of premises at ground floor level. A shop (well more or less a shop, see below) – but not in the West End, as we might expect, but across in the old heart of London – those ancient streets within the city walls, that single square mile of the City of London itself.
A delight to seek them out – this is very much my own terrain – those streets with mediaeval names, some dating back even to Roman times, those narrow passages, lanes and hidden courtyards, where I have spent most of my working life. The twin firms of Pickering and Marlborough have re-located to St. Clement’s Court, just a couple of hundred yards or so from where my old shop used to be (now standing empty, I note). What joy, what pleasure, that the antiquarian book trade is now represented in the City once more – and by businesses of such real distinction.
They are to be found tucked away behind the old church of St. Clement Eastcheap, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire (which started nearby) and completed in 1687. And yes, it is the St. Clement’s of “Oranges and Lemons, Say the Bells of St. Clement’s” – despite what the parishioners of St. Clement Dane may have to say – we City folk know it in our bones – and the reference to St. Martin in the next line more or less proves it (St. Martin Orgar used to stand just across the way, close enough for the parishes to be united after the Great Fire).
The two book businesses now occupy the old vestry of the church, itself seventeenth-century, and with a beautiful contemporary carved wooden overmantel, very school of Grinling Gibbons, to prove it. The arched windows look out on the tiny old graveyard. I say tucked away – hidden might be more accurate. It can be approached only down a narrow passage-way to the north of the church. A white signboard as you emerge from the passage is your only clue. You are then faced by a blank door and have to ring for admittance. Whether this quite counts as a shop is a moot point – but they keep regular hours and seem very happy to greet a visitor. Dickensian we might call it and tend to think of it, but these streets and buildings were old before Dickens was young.
It is a place that will go straight to the top of any list of London’s secret treasures – secret it is, and full of treasure. There I found Jonathan Gestetner, Jolyon Hudson and Ed Smith busily engaged in what they always do, what the two firms have always done. Cataloguing away. Dealing in rare and important books. Yesterday they were gathering together some prize material to ship out to the California Book Fair. Pickering & Chatto strong in philosophy, social science, medicine, politics, the stock currently enlivened with some spectacular suffragette and women’s studies material (examples from a couple of recent catalogues). Books not just rare but endlessly interesting, books which tell us things we didn’t know, books we have never seen before, books not just rare but also unusual (the two are by no means the same).
The complementary Marlborough stock is just as fascinating – architecture, illustration and the decorative arts, some fabulous old games and peepshows, some really rare topography – and especially books on London. Jonathan has been collecting books on London for a lifetime (see A Lost Balloon View of London elsewhere on the blog) and dealing in them for the last twenty-five years or so. We have been talking and trading London books with each other for longer than I can remember – and yet he always, always, manages to come up with something I’ve never seen before. There were several yesterday – one I had to buy, the others I was content to covet.
A thoroughly enjoyable hour, a few books bought – a forgotten novel by a woman member of the Dobell family – but Dobell the poet or Dobell the bookseller? (work to do on that one), the forgotten memoir of a highly articulate nurse in the Great War – books I simply didn’t know and couldn’t have guessed at.
This is a bookselling of a very high level. Books acquired with taste, skill and real flair – a real sense of what matters, a sense of what counts. Books beyond the obvious. Go and seek them out.