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The Times Shopper: London

A Bookshop-Filled Paradise for the Literary Browse-and-Buyers

January 24, 1988|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.

--Dr. Samuel Johnson, July 14, 1763 When people who love literature come to London, they usually stop in to see Dr. Johnson's house in Gough Square. Then they head for the homes of Oscar Wilde (Tite Street, Chelsea), Charles Dickens (Doughty Street, Bloomsbury) and Keats (Wentworth Place, Hampstead).

But literary tours of this literary capital are incomplete without browse-and-buy sprees through the city's fine bookshops.

They offer every sort of volume, which, as Dr. Johnson suggested, personal inclination might make important to you.

Look for just-published works and current best sellers, first editions of the classics, specialized texts about esoteric subjects and inexpensive second-hand hard covers and paperbacks.

London's telephone directory lists more than 500 bookshops. In most of them you'll find good selections and a broad spectrum of stock, as well as appealingly genteel manners.

Begin your browsing near Dr. Johnson's house at J. Clarke-Hall (7 Bride Court), the sort of shop the good doctor might have frequented.

It now specializes, not surprisingly, in contemporary and rare antique editions of books by and about Johnson and his contemporaries (prices from about $7 to $5,000).

The shop also publishes catalogues of books about Johnson and his circle, as well as offering a rich selection of resale review copies of current titles at discounted prices, plus first editions of books dating from the 1800s to 1960s.

Charing Cross Road

The biggest concentration of London bookshops is along Charing Cross Road and in nearby Cecil Court. Foyle's (113-117 Charing Cross Road) is known as "the world's greatest bookshop."

It is a huge, rambling place with 30 departments spread over five floors. It's fairly chaotic, with books bursting out of overstuffed shelves and stacked everywhere. Asking for help to find what you want is well worth the effort.

Many books are marked substantially below list price. In addition to a vast choice of current titles on everything ranging from advertising to zoology, Foyle's has a rare book collection that includes antique editions of Robert Browning's poetry (about $1,200 for a complete 17-volume set published in 1889- 1894) and many other treasures.

Also on Charing Cross Road, Zwemmer (No. 80) offers an impressively comprehensive collection of books on art, illustration and film. Reads (No. 48A), Henry Pordes (No. 58-60) and Any Amount of Books (No. 62) all sell second-hand hard cover books (from about $2.50 and up), including many first editions (from about $15 and up) and paperbacks (about 60 cents and up).

Antiquarian Specialists

Nearby, Cecil Court boasts an extraordinary group of fine antiquarian bookshops. Bell, Book and Radmall (No. 4) has two floors of alphabetically arranged first editions, many with original dust covers, published from 1880 to the present, including both American and British titles priced from about $10 to $800.

Unusual and antique books about the performing arts are found at Pleasures of Past Times (No. 11), which also carries memorabilia, posters, post cards, programs and autographs related to the arts.

If you believe that reading of adventure is another way of living it, you'll find much excitement at Reg and Philip Remington (No. 14), specialists in modern and antiquarian books about travel.

Older volumes date from the 16th Century and include intriguing diaries with engaging descriptions of early voyages to still-exotic destinations in Africa and the Orient. Prices for these delightful adventures are from about $3 to $600.

Peter Stockham at Images (No. 16) offers children's and illustrated books, including new, second-hand and antiquarian volumes, prices from about $2 to $150.

About 10,000 children's titles are in stock, including first editions of the wonderful Babar books and other favorites from everyone's childhood.

Frognal Rare Books (No. 18) is an elegant two-story shop selling ancient tomes on economics, banking, early law and history. Volumes from the 16th Century and are in various languages. Another area of specialization is literature from the 19th Century to the 1930s. Prices from about $15 to $7,000.

Theater Memorabilia

Alan Brett Ltd. (No. 24) sells selected books on topology, maps and prints, many dating from before 1850. Of more general interest are attractive "Vanity Fair" prints and theater memorabilia, selling for about $6 and up.

At No. 27, H. M. Fletcher has a very broad selection of books ranging from very inexpensive second-hand paperbacks (50 cents and up) to fascinating, very rare and pricey 16th-Century Latin and Greek publications known as incunabula (some priced as high as $25,000).

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