Aren’t bookshops great? Apparently when I was a wee Portlander of six or seven, I asked my parents if Powell’s did birthday parties (it doesn’t, which in retrospect is probably one of the main reasons I fled America for the land of my ancestors). Powell’s is an excellent bookshop and probably one of the world’s best, although like most of Portland it suffers from overexposure these days among the twee bourgeoisie (I include myself in this group). It has very high shelves of medium brown wood, big crowded rooms organised by topic, and my favourite ever sign in a bookshop or any shop: Nautical Fiction / Erotica.
Foyles is the exciting big bookshop where you want to have your birthday party of London. It’s the best in the country (Blackwells is better organised, therefore less interesting), mostly because it’s trying to be a Bookshop in the way I think a bookshop morally should be, getting people excited about books as well as putting on really good events for people who are already excited about books and want to share that with other excited people. It puts on international literary tours and live-action Where’s Wally? hunts for kids and says lovely earnest things like, “Wherever possible we make our events at all of our branches free of charge so that everyone can experience the joy of hearing an author talk about or read from their work.”
In June the main branch moved a few doors down Charing Cross Road to a bigger space, in the building that used to house Central Saint Martin’s art college. In an Age of Dying Print and the Rise of the E-Book I find it very pleasing that Foyles is confident enough to move from its Grand Flagship to a Grander Flagship. Chris Foyle, the current majority owner (and grand-nephew of the Founding Foyles, William and Gilbert) said in the Guardian before the opening that he intended people to come to the new shop like they do Harrods or Hamleys, for the experience of being in an attractive place selling interesting things.
It’s light and airy inside, which I’m not sure a bookstore should be, but it is very pleasant. On the opening weekend they had displays showing off how much of an Institution Foyles is: a table of proper published books that mention the bookstore, by eg VS Naipaul, Mary Wesley, MC Beaton, John le Carre, and a “literary beginnings” table of (I think) books originally published or championed by Foyles.
The displays in the front room and the entrance to each floor are well spaced out, so you can stop in front of the staff recommendation shelves to look through them without feeling like you’re about to be in someone’s way. Walking up the stairs takes you past a recommendation shelf on each floor, an architectural choice hilariously patterned on Yo Sushi conveyor belts that was very successful for me, at least, as I was trying to speedwalk up to the café but kept going “ooh, that looks interesting!” and pivoting around to flip through books on the history of the drinking horn or the Year of Four Emperors.
The shop’s free wifi sends you to a book search page that shows you the exact location in the shop of the book you want, which is delightful.
The Jazz Café at old Foyles was a famously great place to park yourself and read, write and generally Do Literary Café Things all afternoon, if you could get a seat. The new one is less cosy wooden coffeeshop and more minimalist warehouse loft. There are exposed pipes, the lights are bare bulbs in mason jars (seriously) and a large stained glass partition blocks off the back corner, which has some faux-Kabbalah designs and the phrase, AN IMAGE OF TRUTH, in block white letters; this is The Gallery and is apparently an installation by a former Central St Martins student. The font in the toilets is Helvetica.
Double espresso (£2.25) was good and it was easier to find a table than it was at the old one, at least at 11am on a Thursday. It’s light and exactly noisy enough that you can eavesdrop if you want to or pay attention to your book if you want to. I wavered about having lunch there or one of Soho’s many very good restaurants, and decided to stay put as the food seemed good value; this was the wrong choice. “Free range chicken pomegranate salad with giant couscous” (£8.50) sounded peppy but was commitedly tasteless; the chicken was pale, soggy and flaccid, the pomegranate was unripe and the couscous was like eating soft clumps of white noise. It was a completely joyless dish and I felt sad and embarrassed that an animal had died for it.
That said, I partially blame myself since bookshop cafés (like National Heritage sites) are traditionally not great for meals but usually good for cakes. I tested this and it was borne out at Foyles too. Orange lavender slice (£3.50) was lovely, thick, ideally iced and exactly the right place on the dry-moist spectrum to be beautiful with tea. I ate it and watched some builders wandering around the next level up, where there is a piano and a mic stand, implying there will be a dedicated music space like the old café had (hooray!).
I like a little bit of nook and cranny in my bookshop and the new Foyles does have a few among the straight clean lines and natural light. Half the third floor is foreign-language books, since in 2011 Foyles bought Grant and Cutler, then the biggest foreign-language bookseller in the UK. Crime and Sci-Fi are right next to each other, as are Film and Philosophy. It’s easy to accidentally go up or down a floor, which is fun. It’s a good building to wander around in. And yes, it does birthday parties.