Several years ago we were away, in our adoptive home-away-from-home, when Alice conked out one afternoon. The details are fuzzy – too many museums, too many hours wandering around London’s sights, jet lag, maybe Portobello Road had wiped her out – but we definitely were going to stay in for the evening. We made it back to Jermyn Street, climbed the stairs to our rooms, and settled in for the night. She went in to lie down; I sat in the other room to read.
And then I finished my book. I have no memory of what the book was – I usually take a big one on long trips so it could have been anything. But whatever it was, I finished it. Then I saw a light. Specifically, it was a light from the bedroom. Alice wasn’t asleep either – she was reading as well, and here’s a mystery of the universe – she was about to finish her book too!
What to do? Oh, what to do? Three pages later, she put on some warmish clothes, I put my jacket back on, and we walked the stairs down to the street, around the corner to Piccadilly, and headed west.
We had passed Hatchard’s before. There’s a Waterstone’s closer to Jermyn Street and, back then, there also was a Books, Etc. across the street on Piccadilly (since relocated to Gatwick Airport), but for some reason we had never stopped in to look at Hatchard’s. Oh, my.
Remember the days before Barnes & Nobles, when you used to find a dozen books you’d never heard of, take them to a quiet corner and sit in a chair, read a few pages to see if they were as good as they looked? Hatchard’s turned out to be that and more. The ‘more’ part is a completely unobtrusive staff that seems to know everything. They don’t pester you as you browse the shelves but if you ask anyone – the cashier, the information desk, a clerk re-shelving books – they are so helpful they almost could be Texans. “Do you like Julian Rathbone? You might want to look at one or two things by John Lanchester.” I did, as it happened. “De Bernieres? The first three were quite good, and Corelli’s Mandolin, well, people liked it, but ….”
We had gone out in search of a book store and come back with a family friend. Less expensive than the movies, more satisfying than all but the best of the plays (London has a core of fantastic plays and a second tier of, shall we say, a few odd ones), and lasts longer than dinner – now that’s a friend. And you get to take home whatever s/he shares with you.
We’ve gone back to see our friend every chance we had, including (we admit it), once when the only reason to be in London at all was a very close connection on a flight home that we might or might not have missed so we tossed it and spent the night in town just to be able to go to the bookstore.
To be sure, Hatchard’s isn’t you. You’re the best kind of friend, the human kind. Hatchard’s is a bookstore. But it’s a great bookstore! And, somehow, when we go back, they make us feel like they remember us and we feel like it was just yesterday that we were there. Just like you do.
And, the stories we learn, if walls could talk….
I suspect you have a Hatchard’s too. Better still, I hope you’ll tell me about yours. Please?
Now, back to ‘Naples 44’ by Norman Lewis. This young clerk told me about this book where this soldier wound up becoming an intelligence officer solely because the examining committee firmly believed that because he had blue eyes, he could ferret the truth out of dissembling ex-fascists…
Hope to hear from you.