London’s secret worlds are often hidden in plain sight.
While crowds bustle along Charing Cross Road, the narrow thoroughfare of Cecil Court — tucked halfway up its side — remains a tranquil throwback to past times. And that’s exactly the way the shopkeepers of the Court want to keep it. The centre of London’s antiquarian book trade, it revels quietly in its position as olde worlde icon; Harry Potter fans, meanwhile, will recognize it as the inspiration for Diagon Alley, a place cluttered by Nikon-pointing tourists marvelling at the darkened shopfronts.
When I creak my way down the stairs to November Books, in the basement of Number 7, proprietor Paul Lawrence is shooting a flick-through video for one of his regular cult mail-outs; while he finishes up, I have a through-the-keyhole style nose about. Having worked in antiquarian bookshops in my younger days, I know them to be higgledy-piggledy places; rooms filled with tottering piles of unpacked volumes, and sheaves of papers that have been in-situ for longer than I’ve been alive. But at November Books there’s none of that. The floor space isn’t large, with a square main room that extends into a dark recess towards the rear. Carefully-filed stacks fill the shelves, arranged by genre and whim. Everywhere I look, there’s treasure: Japanese-labelled books on French film, tiny slips of pamphlets with invisible titles, hefty fashion monographs, and volumes on brands both famous and forgotten.
And Lawrence himself is not the stereotypical bookshop owner, either. In his late thirties, tall and wiry, he wears thick-framed acetate glasses and beautiful thin-gauge knitwear. Softly-spoken and studious, it’s clear that he’s an ardent, enthusiastic collector – in a reserved, and utterly British way. If Harry Potter had ever needed the services of a fashion bookshop, Lawrence would have been perfectly cast as the man beneath the Dries cloak.
But where did the shop spring from? “I was working as a print designer for Vivienne Westwood,” Lawrence explains, “and I started looking for material — partly for myself, and partly for other people. I had worked in the book trade while I was studying, and I was very familiar with this street. I also had a lot of things lying around at home, and at a certain point, I decided I should just focus on this, and basically amass a library of everything I would want. The idea was to make somewhere that you could come and do some research, and to have somewhere where all of the things you might want would be in one place.”
(This original article continues in our Issue Four)