A World Class Bookstore

By Patrick Alexander

December 2019

As a child I was raised in north London, UK, and as soon as I was old enough to travel alone, every Saturday morning I would ride the Northern Line Underground “Tube” into the center of the city. Sixty years later, I can still remember the excitement of emerging from Tottenham Court Road Tube Station and seeing Foyles, “The World’s Greatest Bookshop,” across the road.

Covering two city blocks on Charring Cross Road, Foyles was the biggest bookshop in the world and boasted 30 miles of shelving filled with books. As a teenager I spent my Saturdays lost in its narrow, dusty corridors, lined floor to ceiling with mysterious volumes, second-hand and new books, jumbled side by side and categorized by publisher rather than author or subject matter. Exploring those shelves was like wandering through a labyrinth created by Borges and organized by Kafka.

Paying for a book was almost as challenging as finding it. First you had to stand in line to collect a slip of paper with the name of the book and its price, hand-written. This took you to a second line where you would pay the cashier (in cash) and she would stamp the slip “paid.” Finally, you would hand your slip to a bookseller who went off, located the book, and placed it in a brown paper bag for you to proudly take home.

In the mid-’60s, between school and university, I spent a couple of years hitchhiking around North America, where I discovered San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore. Like Foyles, City Lights was a warren of narrow, book filled corridors, but unlike Foyles, it carried a selection of Californian writers that would not be available in London for decades. Not only did it have all the new poetry of the West Coast, it had the poets themselves; Ginsberg, Corso, and Burroughs were regular visitors and the owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, introduced me to them all. As a student in England, I spent every college vacation hitchhiking around Europe. Whether I was going to Spain, Italy, Germany, Greece or further East, my first stop was always Paris. For me, Paris always meant Shakespeare and Company, the iconic bookshop on the banks of the Seine facing Notre Dame cathedral. Like the previous two stores, Shakespeare was a tangle of narrow stairs, hidden nooks and winding passages, all filled floor to ceiling with books, some new, most second-hand. Henry Miller called it “a wonderland of books.” Over the years I became good friends with the owner, George Whitman, and he let me sleep on a couch in the bookstore whenever I was in Paris.

My days of foreign travel are now long past, and I seldom have time to visit and linger in these legendary literary labyrinths. For more than 30 years I have been settled in Coral Gables. Of course, I miss the magic of Foyles, the poetry of City Lights and the Romance of Paris, but really, it’s not the bookshops that I miss, but my lost youth. As far as legendary bookshops go, I live within a 10-minute walk of America’s Premier Independent bookstore, Books & Books.

Thanks to Mitchell Kaplan’s vision, the residents of Coral Gables are spoiled rotten. Since first opening on Aragon Avenue back in 1982, Books & Books has become a cultural phenomenon, with over 60 author events every month and an astounding selection of English, French and Spanish books clearly organized on spacious floor to ceiling shelves. B&B also offers good food and excellent wine. The Coral Gables flagship may lack the narrow, dusty corridors of the other bookshops I mentioned, but I am now of an age when, to quote Hemmingway, I prefer “a clean, well-lighted place.”