How best to describe Henry Bohn Books? To call it a bookshop in the general sense is probably misleading, although in principle the establishment deals in old books, with a sideline in jazz and classical LPs, old magazines, outdated Ordnance Survey maps, leaflets, catalogues, comic books… the list goes on.
There is a clock above the street entrance that has been put up at an angle, so that the number 11 has crept up to the number 12 position.
Outside the front door of the current premises (which used to be a jewelers) is a stack of old records that were being flicked through by an elderly man bent double when I went in, further encouraging the feeling of disorientation.
I asked the clerk at the ancient mahogany writing desk if it was okay to take a few photographs for a feature on the bookshop and he sort of nodded assent without looking at me. I suggested I could send him the pictures by email, and he told me he didn’t have a mobile phone let alone use email, so I left it and headed deeper inside.
Henry Bohn Books is the sort of place that you might step into out of curiosity, see something interesting that you can’t fit into your bag and decide to return next week, and then never be able to locate again. My research tells me it was first set up in Seel Street a few decades ago before relocating to Lime Street. It then moved back to Seel Street where it remained until it re-re-reopened in the current location on London Road (within sight of the Walker Gallery) where it has been for at least the last two years.
It is perhaps worthwhile at this point to cross reference Henry Bohn with a few other booksellers. Waterstones, despite its critics, provides a comfortable atmosphere in which to read and has a large selection of reading material of all genres. In Waterstones there are convenient and neat stacks of Booker prizewinners, duplicates of elegantly printed Shakespeare in neat rows, and also a comprehensive spread of current autobiographies and memoirs. Blackwells offers a slightly different service – a self-proclaimed university bookshop full of shelves laden with the classics, often OUP or Vintage editions with helpful introductions from academics that enhance and explain the text. Secondhand bookshops are a different breed; some, such as those operated by Amnesty International and Oxfam, contain interesting finds hidden within a mass of Simon Schama and Jeremy Clarkson work. Dedicated used booksellers provide yet another service – usually lots of leather and rich aromas, always good bargains and unexpected discoveries.
Henry Bohn provides something slightly less easy to define. There are no neat stacks of recent prizewinners; there are no duplicates, there is little indication of how the books are organized (apparently the employees there sometimes have long discussions on how to classify them) and below a familiar surface of the Faber poets and Penguins you find some serious-looking literature. The first level has floor to ceiling cases against the walls and another central unit that is obscured by little tables piled high with records and maps and paperbacks and broken pencils. At the end of the unit is the writing desk, which is covered in books that are yet to be priced (usually in the range of £1 to £3) and folders and mugs. The real treats are to be found upstairs – halfway up which there is a darkened booth and another desk with very large tomes on it, some of them missing their spines. On arriving at the first floor proper you are greeted with a blast of light coming in through the window out into London Road, slightly obscured by a sort of gold pendulum in a glass case (the movement powering the mysterious crooked clock?).
This room is similarly rammed with books, but instead of a central block stuffed with stock there is an old wicker chair and a large table with hundreds of classical CDs neatly organized. It could be that people aren’t sure whether or not the upstairs is accessible to the punter, but it was eerily deserted when I breached it and had a look around. The books in this room are old. There are complete fifteen volume collections of the complete works of Thackeray, Dickens, Marx and others nestled snugly with their French and Italian peers. There is a hardback collection of Punch!, as well as other beautifully bound works on botany, natural sciences, literary criticism, linguistics, philosophy, astronomy, astrology, witchcraft and all disciplines both academic and spurious.
Henry Bohn was born in London in 1796 to a German bookbinder (hence Bohn) and was famous for tremendous book auctions lasting for days and strict dining schedules. Sadly he was unable to realize his ambition of founding a publishing house of his own, due in part to the lack of interest in carrying on the trade felt by his sons, and therefore he sold the rights to his Libraries to an existing publisher. Bohn was a collector of pictures, china (he wrote a work entitled Guide to the Knowledge of Pottery and Porcelain), ivories and grew different species of roses.
What is the connection between the bookshop on London Road and the figure of Henry Bohn himself? No information is readily available in the shop, but then again nothing is readily available in there. What is certain is that the oddities and treasures available for under a fiver are present in quantities rich enough to occupy, entice and humble any visitor, no matter how demanding. I slipped out, thanked the clerk again (he nodded and made me feel like I was disturbing a creature in his natural environment) and stepped out into the street, bypassing the man who had by now almost reached the end of the pile of records.