A Man With a Button

February 10th, 2014 by Editor 3 comments »

The tall man’s goatee beard that was tied in knots reminding me of boyhood images of Blackbeard. He was in his later middle-age and wore a hipster tweed suit that struck me as somewhat incongruous. His softly spoken brogue and complimentary good manners together with his broad range of highly literate book purchases piqued my interest and respect.

When this customer gave me his cue, I was ready to engage with him. Though I really couldn’t have guessed where this was going…

He asked me to direct him to the nearby Google campus and I gave him directions; but I’d been slow to realize that he was teeing me up for a revelation.

“I am the inventor” of the button that will bring the smell of books to all future e-readers,  he explained; and,  when my mouth dropped open, he went on,  ”I am a perfumer”.

He proceeded to sing the praises of the smell of the books in Trinity College Library, Dublin; “an olfactory delight”, was his measured appraisal.

I was part spellbound by his enthusiasm, part amazed by his eccentricity, but wholly amazed that he truly foresaw a future for his book smell button.

It’s true that I had once come across an antiquarian bookseller who regularly put his beaky nose deep into the pages of any antiquarian book he was considering buying to inhale the book’s past and to inform his appraisal.

But I was finding it  almost impossible to separate the crazy notion of book sniffing from the real craze of sniffing glue, conflating  them in my mind into people buying e-readers for their addictive fix of the smell of old books.

On innumerable occasions customers have complimented me on the smell of the bookshop – it had somehow reinforced the authenticity of the place to them.  This man’s smell button was purporting to somehow reinforce the authenticity of an e-reader.

Whereas our bookshop smell genuinely arises from the mixture of new and antiquarian books, the book smell button is as artificial as is the quest to copy all the various aspects of the book using digital, electronic or mechanical means.

They are two separate artifacts. Is there any point conflating them?

The Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout


Inauguration Stations

February 5th, 2014 by Editor No comments »

Hello Hello Hello! Hello. We are the Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout and we would like to welcome you to our new-look blog.

We’ve been selling books in Old Street Roundabout for thirteen years and we figured, with the arrival of this most auspicious of anniversaries, that it was time to create a place to talk about it. So here we have it: a soapbox for a material girl in a digital world.

At the beginning of last week the Standard broke the news that the area around Old Street Roundabout (or ‘Tech City’, as it is snazzily styled) has become the place for tech start-ups to locate themselves. One interviewee said: “There’s a great energy in London’s start-up scene. It’s still proving itself.”

I mean, isn’t this just a really astonishing piece of news? Tech companies in Silicon Roundabout? It’s dynamite!

This story could have been written on any year for the last decade so, apparently, nothing has changed. Old Street is still the up and coming place for the up and coming. But then, they do keep coming – and this high turnover of businesses and the people that work in them has put the shop in contact with an ever shifting population of workers. It’s given us a window onto these different people’s changing book-buying habits.

First off, we’ve seen the decline of technical books. Since the beginning it’s been our policy not to stock software how-to manuals and such the like as they grow obsolete so quickly, but we have always offered a service ordering specific books that our customers need. As the years have gone on the number of these requests has steadily declined, to the point that now we can go weeks on end without any enquires about technical books at all.

On the flip side of this decline, we have seen a steady increase in sales of science fiction. What is interesting is that our past experience has shown that technical books and science fiction have often gone together – customers with an interest in one would frequently have an interest in the other.

What this suggests to me is that, whilst our customers are looking less and less to print to learn how to do specific things, they are turning to books more often as a form of escape. Several customers who spend their workdays sat at computers have told me that when they get home they want a way to relax which doesn’t involve looking at a screen.

It has always been the job of speculative fiction to look forwards: to imagine, for better or for worse, what will come next. For most of us, the future will mean more time spent at a computer. And as the amount of time that we’re plugged-in steadily increases, the existence of books as a means of respite – as an access to the thrilling sensation of  complete immersion in one’s own imagination – will become more important than ever.

But then, we would say that.

What do you think?


The Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout

What Old St./Silicon roundabout improvements would you like to see?

December 7th, 2013 by Editor 2 comments »

We have just received an update on the improvements earmarked for Old Street/Silicon roundabout concourse from TfL. They want to “repaint the floor, make all units more uniform, tidy up the walkway, have light box signage”. There will be near universal support for improving the floor, lighting and signage. Does everybody also really support TfL’s intention to make all units more uniform? It would be really helpful to hear from anyone whether shop uniformity is what would make the concourse a more attractive destination. I’ve started gathering facts with a survey, if you would kindly care to “express an opinion below or in our book shop..

What’s the Story behind the Intriguing Collection of Tiny Books Behind the Counter

November 15th, 2013 by Editor No comments »

The miniature books are something I have bought and sold since I began bookselling, in the 1980′s, as a very young man, hawking books around London on foot to the West End bookshops and later at monthly bookfairs in Bloomsbury and then in my own bookshops.
Miniatures originated when almanacs (our equivalent of diaries) and religious texts were needed in portable editions for the waistcoat pocket, to be consulted when at work or travelling. In Victorian times they were also used to advertise things such as Pears soap, and classic texts by Shakespeare and Lord Tennyson for example were issued as collectables. There were still some practical miniature editions of tables printed for engineers and foreign language dictionaries for travellers, but gradually miniature books have become more and more prized as objects to collect. The technical achievement of producing a legible book in such a tiny format still fascinates me.
Because I have found them so intriguing, you will always find a selection for sale at my bookshop, from rarities up to 20th century examples that you can buy from as little as £7.99 or into the hundreds of pounds.

On the Buy Out of Print Books tab, on the home page of the CamdenLock Books website, you can see a list of just a few miniature books in stock now. You should click on “View all catalogues” and then again on “Miniature”.

Future of Old Street Roundabout and the bookshop

November 11th, 2013 by Editor No comments »

I met Robin Charlesworth of TfL last Friday to hear his plans.
Short-term he is going to hand over up to 5 shop units to a letting company to administer as pop-up shops. He is bringing in the Parks Police from December to patrol. He will make changes towards unifying the image of the advertising hoardings, signage, A-boards and shop fronts. Lighting and flooring may also be uplifted. There are also unspecified plans to provide something to do with contemprorary fine arts on the surface of the roundabout ( I reminded him of the proposal to use the plinth for installations). All these changes are dependant on funding streams and parts of it are somewhat experimental and subject to change as the plans evolve.
The medium-term plans are in respect of the de-insularisation of the roundabout and largely concern the changes to the roads at the surface. These are currently being negotiated by TfL, Hackney and Islington boroughs and the Highways Agency. Robin does not have anything to do with this phase apart from if any of the underground parts require structural strengthening to support the new roads above. Any disruption to the underground or to the shops will be kept to a minimum and should not involve any longer-term impact.
The long-term plans reflect the fact that Old Street is third highest priority for TfL to redevelop in order to manage the ratio of space available to a significant increase in passenger use at the station. This will involve the station and the shops closing and being completely rebuilt from the tracks upwards at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds. As such this is not likey to happen for many years to come and it is likely to be a major project that is discussed at all levels over the forthcoming years, with a possible starting date as late as 2021 or later.
The bookshop will be remaining in situ to provide for all its valued customers as long as possible. We are in the course of negotiating another six year lease presently.
Please correct me if I have misunderstood or misrepresented any of TfL’s plans.


October 22nd, 2013 by Editor No comments »

The first thing to say about self-published books is that there are an awful lot of them.

And they’re breeding. A report by Bowker has found that self-publishing has increased by 422 per cent since 2007. The year on year growth shows that self-publishing is a platform that is here to stay, but one question that hasn’t been settled is whether this is a positive development.

Publishers certainly don’t think so. They have, after-all, traditionally been the gatekeepers, separating the wheat from the chaff, and preventing those fools that dare to mix metaphors from ever seeing their names in print. They may have been feeling vindicated last week with the news that Amazon and other online retailers have been selling self-published books containing indecent material, including scenes of rape and the sexual abuse of children.

These retailers rushed to remove the offending titles from their stores, with the Kobo sites even closing down last week to ensure that all of this content had been taken down. However, these revelations have opened up the debate as to how self-published works can be effectively regulated without curbing freedom of speech.

The situation is entirely different in an independent bookshop. Just as with titles released by publishers, each self-published book will be individually considered by a buyer before being stocked. There is no danger that the offensive titles uncovered last week would ever find their way onto the shelves for this reason. The problem, therefore, is restricted to the digital medium, as booksellers are often able to take the quality controlling role that has been historically been fulfilled by publishers.

This is, of course, reductive. Publishers do a lot more than merely acting as moral guardians, and their declining influence has disadvantages for writers as well as readers. Many great books owe their greatness to their editors; you need only look at Ezra Pound’s annotated first edit of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland to see the enormous impact that a bit of judicious excision can have.

Publishers also know how to create a product, one that communicates quickly to a prospective reader what kind of experience they will have if they take the book home. This is one area where self-publishing still lags behind. So many self-published books that arrive at the shop have covers that give no real clue as to what the book is about and are typeset poorly. Customers are often short of time and want to make decisions quickly. Elegant and coherent book design helps make this possible, and so without the resources to pay for design and marketing specialists, many self-published books leave these customers cold.

But whatever else it means, self-publishing means more books, and I would say that this can only be a good thing. The BBC recently reported on the ‘bokaflod’ in Iceland, where 1 in 10 people will publish a book in their lifetime. Kristin Vidarsdottir, manager of the Unesco City of Literature project, told the BBC that “Even now, when I go the hairdressers, they do not want celebrity gossip from me but recommendations for Christmas books.” The financial crisis fuelled a renewed interest in reading and writing. And whether they are good or bad, if more books mean more people reading, surely it cannot be such a terrible thing?


(Please feel free to comment, we would welcome your opinion!)

Nobel Defeat

October 14th, 2013 by Editor No comments »

Once again, American poet John Ashbery has missed out on the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It cannot be said that this has come as a complete surprise. On the morning of the announcment the Telegraph published a list of the top 10 ‘runners and riders’ which featured three Americans – none of whom were John Ashbery.

His name is, however, one that is bandied about every year in lists of possible recipients of the prize and he is the frequent recipient of epithets such as ‘most important living American poet’ and ‘best poet of the late 20th century’. All of which he has earned and deserves and so, to fly in the face of the Nobel committee, I would like to offer some reasons why we could all do with a little more Ashbery in our lives.

He is the antidote to the criticism, made in 2008 by the permanent secretary to the Nobel jury Horace Engdahl that American writers ‘don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature’. Though at times obtuse, Ashbery’s work is always inclusive, and it certainly never shies away from the big ideas. Take this opening sentence from ‘Spring Day’, a poem from Ashbery’s 1970 collection The Double Dream of Spring.


The immense hope, and forbearance
Trailing out of night, to sidewalks of the day
Like air breathed into a paper city, exhaled
As night returns bringing doubts

That swarm around the sleeper’s head
But are fenced off with clubs and knives, so that morning
Installs again in cold hope
The air that was yesterday, is what you are,

In so many phases the head slips from the hand. […]


The first thing you notice is non-linearity; the sentence trails through two nights to end up at yesterday. But it is the combination of this dream-time with a poised uncertainty of address which is striking. An addressee seems to be located with ‘is what you are’, but when you read it back once more this addressee dissolves as you realise it was merely ‘the air that was yesterday’. Just as in a dream, as a reader of Ashbery you are not always sure where you are, who you are and how much time has passed. It is very liberating.

In an interview once Ashbery said that ‘you should try to make your poetry as representative as possible’ which suggests to me a drive towards democratic inclusiveness. This is borne out by the poem which, instead of describing one dream, gives us the experience of dreaming. It allows you as the reader to be the dreamer. This experience of dreaming was one that fascinated Freud, inspired Breton and the surrealists and continues to influence and inform important writers such as Murakami today. So if Ashbery isn’t ‘participating in the big dialogue of literature,’ then perhaps it’s time to change the conversation.


Marriage of Convenience

October 7th, 2013 by Editor 1 comment »

In an interview this weekend for the Guardian, Managing Director of Waterstones James Daunt discussed his decision to stock the Amazon Kindle in stores across the country.

The decision came as part of a dramatic overhaul that Daunt has been carrying out at the retail chain since he was hired by the Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut, after Mamut bought Waterstones from HMW two years ago.

In reply to those that have said that stocking Kindle tablets and e-readers is like ‘inviting the fox into the henhouse’ Daunt has said that he is merely ‘giving customers what they want’. He went on to write off concerns that book-buying customers might disappear completely once they have got hold of an e-reader, convinced that the market is reaching an equilibrium and that only a small minority will abandon print books altogether.

These comments, however, fail to address the matter from which criticism has stemmed. The issue is not whether Waterstones should remained focussed on print books, but rather whether Daunt is wise to allow Amazon to set a shop-front in their stores across the country.

In an article in the Bookseller this month it was reported that Amazon ‘control 79% of the e-book market in the UK’. It is a battle that, for the moment, they have won. And so they seek to tighten their strangle-hold on the physical book industry. Their purchase of Abe Books and The Book Depository, combined with the astonishingly low prices they are able to offer by not paying tax of any kind, has meant that they have already claimed great swathes of the book-buying public. Now, it seems, Daunt is determined to funnel those customers still dedicated to buying from the high street into Amazon’s ever-widening maw.

Once customers have bought a Kindle from Waterstones will they not be tempted to do all their shopping in one click, bundling their ebook and print books into the same basket? It is certainly true that – as Daunt mentions – many readers retain a strong tactile relationship to books. But are they going to continue to return to high street for them if they are being led by the hand from the stores that they frequent?

In the short run, it makes a lot of sense; Waterstones will make more money. But in the background Jeff Bezos will be lurking, keeping an eye on his enormous clock and rubbing his hands together with glee.


Pets and Books

October 4th, 2013 by Editor No comments »

Contented Book dealers often have pets in their book shops or market stalls. Do you have or know of a domestic pet that stays with its owner in their shop, book room or warehouse? If so, take a photo and send it in – preferably with anecdotes!
Camden Lock Books has a three year old rescue dog who comes to the bookshop every Thursday morning. She is a mongrel that is a ‘collaboration’ -part collie, part black Labrador and part Alsatian. She arrived a year ago, having recently had a litter, via Dorset Dog Rescue, from a pound in Ireland where she had been scheduled for extermination.
She is surprisingly well socialised and adjusted (though somewhat food obsessed),  as you can find out if you come into the bookshop one Thursday for a meet and greet with her. In fact, she’s so affectionate that a tummy rub is in prospect for any dog lover who needs that special animal ‘fix’.

Yesterday a customer came to buy a book at the counter and said that Rosie had sold it to him- that it had felt so homely to see her  reclined on the bookshop floor that he felt compelled to make his purchase.

Cats are always choosy about where they sleep – but Rosie has a bed made for her behind the counter because she is sometimes too friendly, particularly if a customer is carrying their eat-out lunch in a bag with them.

Darcy’s Death is Pants

September 30th, 2013 by Editor No comments »

A pall was thrown across the literary world last week with the shocking and untimely passing of Mr. Mark Darcy. A preview of Helen Fielding’s new book Mad About the Boy – the third in the Bridget Jones canon – has revealed that the object of Ms. Jones’ affections, and of many thousands of women around the world, succumbed in the period between the second and third book. The cause is unknown.


Grieving Bridget Jones fans took to social media to express their anguish at the loss. “Noooo! Not Mark Darcy!” wrote Fiona Ufton. Max_Normal was rather less plaintive: “RIP #Darcy ya fop.”

It does seem a rather extreme way of clearing the path for Roxster, the 29 year old toy-boy who is to be Bridget’s squeeze in the new book. Couldn’t Mark and Bridget simply have got a divorce? I suppose it is probably more convenient that he dies. It’s a clean break, stops him from cropping up later and causing mischief.

Or perhaps there are other forces at work. Perhaps, like the rest of us, Fielding has been tearing her way through the Game of Thrones series and delighting in the way George R.R. Martin leaves the path strewn with the mutilated corpses of our favourite characters.

Many things separate Ms. Fielding’s writing from that of Mr. R.R. Martin, but the important difference here is that the latter never promises happily ever after. The Game of Thrones series declares from the very first page, loudly and violently, the impossibility of a fairy-tale ending. We expect a high body count, so when R.R. Martin gives us one we accept it because he is simply following through.

But Fielding did write a fairytale, and the princess got the prince. So the fact that they haven’t continued getting exponentially happy in our absence is… well, it’s just poor form.