Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Little Tinker

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Monday, June 23, 2003
Words. Words, Words
I miss the Charing Cross Road, that thoroughfare which runs up from London's Trafalgar Square to Oxford Street. Once upon a time, you could buy any book you wanted there. Why, they even made a film about it.

Not so very long ago, if you wanted the latest best-seller, you'd pop into that upstart, Waterstone's, and wind up leaving with a choice bit of literature under your arm, as well as that best-seller. That quirky unheard-of volume recommended (sometimes invisibly) by one of the enthusiastic new-to-London youngsters at Books Etc. ("You will absolutely adore this, sir, I guarantee it, and, if you don't, then you can come back here and spit in my eye.")? No problem. That forgotten classic you half-remember reading as a kid? Bound to be a second-hand copy in the parade of shabby shops between Litchfield and Newport Streets.

And for the ladies (and their ladies) there's Silver Moon, and Collets will take care of the Leningrad Lefties. The arty ones have got Zwemmer's (three of 'em). For the homos there's that seedy little shop by the Hippodrome which sells poppers as well, and the Anoraks love the Fantasy Inn (you can hang the anorak up in the basement if you're into that other kind of Fantasy, sir). Round the corner in tiny Cecil Court, the prima ballerinas will glissade towards Dance Books, and might even dip into that joint which only sells first-editons, as well as the Italian libreria, and that funny New Age place.

And, if you can't find what you wanted in any of these places then you'll just have to brave the book-world's very own Eva Peron, purple-haired Christina Foyle, demanding you hand over your purchase to the foreign holiday-worker who can't speaka de Engleesh, and who then writes you out a chit, which you then have to take over to a separate cashpoint (no cheques, no credit cards) to pay and get the chit stamped, before returning to the place you originally came from to collect your tattered tome of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Foyle's is still there, with one branch of Zwemmer's still hanging on for grim life, and a Borders, but the Charing Cross Road, like so much of London, has now been Starbucked, and is rapidly descending into one more homogenised blob of coffee-chains, greasy Italian restaurants, naff and leery bars (both gay and straight), and second-hand bag shops. And, if you want the culprit, look no further than the local Westminster Council who are hiking up the leases of these properties until no half-way individual business of character can even afford to trade and make money there any more.

And 84 Charing Cross Road, the former bookshop and address which inspired a heart-warming correspondence and love story, and later movie, between two book-lovers, is now an All Bar One.

Don't we love and appreciate books anymore?