WHERE did the idea ever originate that book dealers and collectors are shy, retiring folk, probably bachelors, a little dotty, invariably sporting tweeds and briar pipes? Here I am in the midst of some of the sharpest book scouts, or runners, in London and most of them look like rugby players. It is nearly 9:30 on a Saturday morning and we are huddled three-deep around a canvas-covered table, eyeing one another like jealous hyenas afraid of missing a choice bit of haunch. Fortunately, I feel ready for the book frenzy to come, being a veteran from early childhood of Doorbuster Specials and Crazy Day Sales, carefully trained in the quick grab by a mother of exceptional shopping brilliance and ferocity. Besides I have dashed through the doors with Washington's best at such annual stampedes as the Vassar, Brandeis, and Goodwill Book Sales. I know what to expect.
Or do I? My friend John Clute, collector extraordinaire of science fiction and much else, is across from me, chatting amiably with a guy who specializes in German literature, but all the while flexing his shoulders and elbows, jockeying for position, his right hand poised above the Laurence Binyon set of Dante not quite covered by the canvas. John's been a regular here for years, as have the two dozen or so other collectors who know that the best book bargains in London come from George Jeffrey's barrows on Farringdon Road. George, who recalls a character out of Dickens -- ruddy, round cheeks, thick London accent, blue shop coat -- has been scurrying about shifting triple-decker novels, bound magazines, and vellum folios from his dilapidated van to the various plank tables, occasionally stopping for a sip of coffee from the thermos he carefully places on the stone wall nearby. Holding the sole remaining license to sell books on the streets of London, he rules his pocket borough with an iron hand and a child's petulance. He never tells customers which of his tables will be unveiled first, and he has been known to take a feint toward one, and then scuttle down to another and whip off its green tarp with a Blackstone-like flourish. He seems to enjoy the agonized rustling and scurrying that result. One of the few women here mumbles about sadism.
This morning George starts with his "auction." While most of us wait for the one-quid books, those with more refined taste hurry down to where George offers up 18th-century sets of Johnson and Collins, early leather-bound Bibles, sets of the Boy's Own Paper, anything that he deems of more than ordinary value. A sleek, goateed figure leans closely over the table and, as soon as George grasps a volume, shouts "Yes, George," never waiting to see the title or hear the asking price. Occasionally, two voices ring out, and without a word the Iron Chancellor flips a coin, glancing at one of the disputants to make the call. When George hefts seven or eight volumes of P.G. Wodehouse, I think of losing my place over them. "None of 'em are right. Six quid for the lot." I like Wodehouse and would be happy with even non-firsts, but I am too slow and a guy my age snaps them up. It's Ike Ong, the Chinese owner of Skoob (books spelled backwards), one of the best second-hand shops in London.
By now our table is getting restless. George ignores us and the tension mounts. Should I move down to the auction area, where all the action is? I study Clute, who doesn't budge, and I stay in place. Without warning George is suddenly in our midst, tugging away the tarp; for a moment I see the books as though in a freeze-frame -- something by Wyndham Lewis, Walter de la Mare's Broomsticks, Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers, odd volumes of Churchill's history of the Second World War, thin pamphlets of unknown character, Ordnance Survey Maps, little blue Oxford World Classics, a volume of Barry Pain stories, Henry King's poems, bound numbers of The Strand magazine, and more and more -- but then the world is a flurry of hands grabbing, arms reaching, elbows poking. My glasses are knocked from my face; no one hears my yell. I pick them up quickly with one hand and seize a copy of Sacheverell Sitwell's Southern Baroque Art with the other. Stuffing it under my arm, I reach down groping blindly for book after book, dropping most, saving a few. Within 90 seconds, my arms laden, I tote my treasures off to the wall where I stack them next to Clute's. The fury of the bibliomanes has begun to calm down now, and I look more coolly through the rejects. After all, one man's trash . . . But this quiet lasts only a moment, because there are other tables, other tarps, other treasures. For a moment I glance up in the midst of this chaos of paper and bookcloth and think: This is heaven. Indeed, for anyone who collects second-hand books England remains a paradise. For one thing, you can find English books -- and real first-edition collectors "follow the flag." If you collect John Fowles or John le Carre' or any other British writer, you will want the English first editions of their books, the only true firsts. Of course, since the British tend to value dust jackets a lot less than Americans -- a very healthy attitude in my opinion -- fanatics may find it harder to find copies "mint in dj." Still the books are there, in bookshops as pleasant and varied as those of Washington.
Anyone contemplating a book-buying trip to London should certainly stop by Farringdon Road (between Clerkenwell and Cowcross), if only to watch. But there are plenty of calmer, less perilous places to acquire books. Consider, for instance, the G. Heywood Hill Book Shop in Mayfair. Only a few blocks from Harrod's, just around the corner from Thomas Goode's china emporium (purveyors to the royal family), and literally next door to Trumper's (perfumers to the same folk), Heywood Hill is nothing if not genteel. Nancy Mitford used to clerk here; people like Evelyn Waugh once stopped in frequently; those elegant men of letters, Harold Acton and Paul Horgan, still order regularly from their homes in Italy and America.
Located in a rowhouse at 10 Curzon Street, the shop handles both new and old books, with an emphasis on literature, biography, history -- just what a gentleman would like to read at his club. I noticed all six volumes of the ultra-literary, witty, unashamedly tory letters of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis. The second hand shelves proffered novels by Bulwer Lytton and Dickens; The Best of Friends: Letters to Sir Sydney Cockerell (which I bought in memory of Noel Perrin's enthusiastic "Rediscovery" of same); Grierson's edition of Donne in two volumes. While I browsed through the stock, the phone rang repeatedly and was picked up by young shop assistants who might fit the poster image of the Sloane Ranger. The manager pottered about in an old gray cardigan and totted up bills on the backs of envelopes. While I was there, the collective staff turned over half the standard references to verify some bibliographical problem about Winston Churchill. Finally, the children's section -- in the basement -- proved absolutely superb, its manager extremely knowledgeable, and the books a bargain: I found three volumes of Alan Garner's Stone Book quartet, all firsts at their original 1.95 price. Of course, I had to scour all London to find the fourth book -- and then pay a premium for it. (It was Granny Reardun and I finally located it at Waterstone's in Charing Cross, where it was the only Garner on the shelf.)
All in all, Heywood Hill, like Farringdon Road, should be a stop on any bibliographic tour of London. Besides, you can then visit Trumper's as I did, where I heard a tweedy-bosomed dowager say in the most elevated of upper-class accents: "Is the Brigadier ready yet?"
Michael Dirda is an assistant editor of Book World.