A hundred years ago, two brothers, William and Gilbert Foyle, 19 and 18 respectively - failed the entry exams for the Civil Service in Great Britain. They decided, therefore, to sell their textbooks and advertised this in the newspaper. The response was so overwhelming that they soon decided to establish a second-hand bookstore. Thus was born Foyles, the bookshop, which is still on the same street where it opened in 1906, all four floors of it, with its deep-red colored flag, at 113-119 Charing Cross Road in London. There it continued to sell books - and mail them all over the world - during World Wars I and II, the Blitz included.
During its first 30 years, the bookshop developed into a book-selling empire, with an inventory of more than five million volumes covering 30 miles of shelves (they once had a contest for the best way to dust them). Foyles also acquired the doubtful reputation of being one of the most irksome bookstores in the world. The owners boasted that they had "all the books in the world," but there was a small problem with buying them: The knowledgeable, multilingual staff at the store looked on the prospective customer as a kind of a nuisance. Once you found the book you wanted, you ran into another problem: The booksellers were forbidden to take money from customers. They would - after you waited in line - take the book out of your hands, slip it into a brown paper bag and give you a handwritten receipt in two copies (using carbon paper). You then had to take these to the cashier on the ground floor, wait in line again, pay and then take the receipt to the department from whence you came, wait in line there again - and only then could you take your book safely home.
It is small wonder that Wendy Cope was awarded the first prize in The New Statesman poetry contest in 1980 for her short poem "Foyled," describing her experience in failing to buy a book that she wanted there, and feeling foiled by the system. In those years I remember seeing a cartoon in a competing bookstore, Dillons: A perplexed customer enters Dillons, and is greeted by a smiling bookseller saying, "Ah, Foyled again?"
Foyles acquired this doubtful reputation of irksomeness during the long reign of Christina Foyle, William's daughter, who established the "Foyles Literary Luncheons" in 1930, still a very respected and admired institution (2003 saw the 700th event of that kind). Christina and William offered to buy the books the Nazis were keen on burning in the 1930s, provided the price was acceptable, of course. The deal never took place.
In Christina's time, there was a strike at Foyles. She said that the moment a worker became indispensable, it would be time to fire him or her. And she agreed that the staff was completely free to accept or reject the conditions of employment - as long as she was the one who established them.
Christina died in 1999 and management of the bookstore was transferred to the third generation: The chairman is Christopher Foyle, and the executive director is Bill Samuel. Dillons was sold to Waterstone's a long time ago, but Foyles is still there, celebrating its centenary with an anecdotal book by Peggy Mountain (12.98 pounds sterling, which gives the buyer a voucher of 5 pounds, immediately used by this buyer to purchase more books).
The bookstore itself started to change at the age of 100. It is undergoing major refurbishment, with new shelves in lighter and brighter shades of wood colors, much better lighting, more accessible staircases, and escalators and elevators. The entire stock has been computerized, and you can buy the book you desire in the department in which you find it - or at least on the same floor - after being served by a smiling, helpful and knowledgeable bookseller, eager to assist you.
On the ground floor I inquired where they stock "books on books" - books about the history of the book and of reading. As expected, I was directed to the "literary criticism" section, where I did find, after poring over the shelves on which books were standing in strict alphabetic order (with some subsections by period, particular authors, genres, etc.), some very interesting (I hope, it still remains to be read) books. But I was also advised to look for those books in the history department, on the third floor. This department has not been renovated, and still has the musty and dusty and disordered look of the old Foyles. A well-dressed bookseller thought about it for a moment, and directed me to a shelf where they stock volumes on "books on the history of miscellaneous subjects." Interesting, I thought to myself. In Foyles, books are filed under "miscellaneous subjects."
Then I went to the cafe, on the second floor. It is unlike cafes in other bookstores, as it is sort of rustic in nature, and not metallic, sleek and impersonal. On the same floor there is also Ray's Jazz (an establishment which is in danger of folding and which was bought by Foyles, like the feminist bookshop "Silver Moon"), so the sounds of munching (organic food) is drowned out by the sounds of jazz.
At the table next to mine sat a couple exchanging loving glances. Between them lay a book with an enticing title: "Lost in a Good Book." I went back to the literature department and asked the seller to find it for me. She punched a few keys on her computer and said, "Yes, we have plenty of copies right here," and disappeared behind a shelf, just to reappear with a puzzled look on her face.
"Odd, it is not here, but please wait here a moment," she said, and disappeared again, returning triumphantly with several copies of the book, by Jasper Fforde, in her hand. "I don't know why," she said, "but all the copies, signed by the author, were in the basement." She sold me the book happily.
And so, after 100 years, Foyles, the biggest and undoubtedly the most famous independent bookstore in the world, has again become a bookstore where it's fun to be lost - and found.