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The Modernist Bookshops of Charing Cross Road

4 November 2022

Matthew Chambers, University of Warsaw

Today, bookshops like Foyle’s and Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road or the cluster of booksellers on the adjoining Cecil Court Road operate as reminders of the heyday of bookselling in this area of London in the early-to-mid twentieth century. In 1934, for example, there were twenty-six booksellers on these two streets, and several were active in the publishing and distribution of modernist literature. Charing Cross Road was opened in the late 1880’s to improve travel between Charing Cross and Tottenham Court Road and Bloomsbury.[i] Booksellers began opening shops in the earliest years following the road’s opening and has long since been associated with bookselling.[ii] There was an immense variety in the types, commercial success, and longevity of the bookshops. Amongst these booksellers were some for whom the current trends in writing and the arts held the most fascination, and they actively sought to not only sell but also publish and support these authors.

Bookshop publications were not novel to the early twentieth century. Often, bookshops might be a shopfront for a specific printer or publisher, or there were booksellers who would regularly publish and circulate catalogues of their stock. Some larger ventures, like Galignani’s in Paris (Messenger), W.H. Smith all over Britain (The Book Window), and Brentano’s in New York, Paris, and elsewhere (Book Chat) would regularly publish a newspaper or journal which featured news stories, articles, and plenty of advertising for their businesses. There came a shift, though, with the so-called “modernist bookshops” who can be identified by their willingness to act as publisher, promoter, and sometimes agent, for their customers, and often became identified with a certain literary milieu.[iii]

For a time, London saw a significant number of modernist bookshop publishers. While the more famous The Poetry Bookshop and more recently re-appreciated Esther Archer’s could be found closer to a cluster of booksellers near the British Museum, bookshops like Beaumont’s, Zwemmer’s, and Henderson’s “The Bomb Shop” (which later became Collet’s) capitalized on the foot traffic from Charing Cross Road and the informal identity of the road as a bookseller’s hotspot. In what follows, I will sketch out what these shops published, both to provide a sense of the volume of modernist literature they printed and circulated and to underscore how central bookshops were in modernist literary production.

Beaumont’s at 75 Charing Cross Road specialized in ballet books but also developed connections in the London literary community, especially with the Sitwells and Richard Aldington. Cyril Beaumont taught himself how to set type and acquired a printing press which he installed in the shop’s basement. He wanted, as he recalled later, to make his ‘own contribution to the trade in modern “firsts”’.[iv] The Beaumont Press published exquisite books with decorative boards. Beaumont first published John Drinkwater’s Tides (1917) with illustrations by Paul Nash, and subsequently Walter de la Mare’s The Sunken Garden (1917), W.H. Davies’s Raptures (1918), Joseph Conrad’s One Day More (1919), Richard Aldington’s Images of War also illustrated by Paul Nash (1919), and D.H. Lawrence’s Bay (1919).

Zwemmer’s, which regularly advertised in New Verse and was fondly remembered by Geoffrey Grigson, primarily sold high-end art books but also traded in foreign language books. Grigson described Zwemmer’s as ‘all that the rest of London was not … [it] was where we bought [art books] … discovered copies of Blast and The Enemy … [it] was the one shop where the new and lively poetry and fiction were always in stock’.[v] Founder Anton Zwemmer quit a stock job at Harrod’s handling foreign correspondence and working the book section to apprentice at Richard Jaschke’s at 78 Charing Cross Road in 1916 to eventually break out on his own purchasing Jaschke’s Charing Cross Road shop in 1923. By the 1930s, Zwemmer had opened Zwemmer’s Gallery and expanded into 76 Charing Cross Road with a general literature shop, and so successfully cornered the contemporary art book market at the time that Zwemmer’s was selected as the book dealer for the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. His foray into publishing consisted of primarily focusing on the co-publishing of foreign books (primarily to off-set the higher costs of producing editions with numerous high-quality illustrations). Zwemmer’s editions aimed for the ‘middle of the market, where striking reproductions and authoritative texts were provided at moderate cost’.[vi] The most notable of these were a series of titles published in the 1930’s: Roger Fry’s Henri-Matisse (1930), Eugenio d’Ors’s Pablo Picasso (1930) and Paul Cezanne (1934), and Herbert Read’s Henry Moore: Sculptor, An Appreciation (1934).

Henderson’s, at 66 Charing Cross Road, which, from 1919 to 1921, published the journal Coterie. Coterie featured an impressive number of American and British poets – including T.S. Eliot, Amy Lowell, Conrad Aiken, Herbert Read, and Aldous Huxley – and advertised its stock in a section in the back of each issue entitled ‘At the Bomb Shop’ (as the shop was more familiarly known). Even as the journal was published by two Oxford students (Chaman Lall and Russell Green), in the absence of any editorial statements until its last issue and the singular presence of Henderson’s as the mailing address and advertising focus, Coterie built a strong association with the bookshop. As Andrew Thacker has emphasized, the journal’s name invites a conversation about the concept of coteries.

What is missing from the pages of Coterie is the stamp of any aesthetic movement. Coterie is not the mouthpiece of any ism. In many senses this defines its formational character within the history of the modernist magazine: it brings together any number of contributors who, in other places, and particularly in the years prior to the First World War would have been aligned with particular movements.[vii]

Even as Henderson’s did not necessarily serve as a social milieu for the poets of Coterie, in the absence of any ‘ism’ associated with the journal, the bookshop was synonymous with the publication, and by extension, the poets within its pages.

Henderson’s contemporary, Harold Monro (founder of the The Poetry Bookshop), argued that in the pages of his many publications ‘we shall recommend the public what to read: in the Bookshop we shall sell them what we have recommended’.[viii] Bartholomew Brinkman has noted that ‘the Poetry Bookshop did not only promote various books and schools of poetry in its critical reviews but also, in providing examples from poets and playwrights whose volumes could be found in the shop, they became metonymic of the Poetry Bookshop itself’.[ix] Accordingly, the “material juxtapositions” of the publications on the shelf mixed with the in-shop conversations, lectures, and readings can provide a fuller sense of modernism in the making.[x] With these few examples from Charing Cross Road, we can also imagine the scale and intensity of such making, visible to anyone making their way between Bloomsbury and Soho during the early-to-mid twentieth century.

Image credit: Printed Map Descriptive of London Poverty 1898-1899, Sheet 6, West Central District. London School of Economics


[i]      Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert, eds., The London Encyclopaedia (Bethesda:  Adler & Adler Publishers Inc., 1986), p. 139.

[ii]     F.A. Mumby and Ian Norrie, eds., Publishing and Bookselling, Revised Edition (London: Jonathan Cape, 1974), p. 288.

[iii]    For recent scholarship on modernist bookshops, see Huw Osborne, ed., The Rise of the Modernist Bookshop: Books and Commerce of Culture in the Twentieth Century (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2015); Andrew Thacker, ‘“A True Magic Chamber”: The Public Face of the Modernist Bookshop’, in Modernist Cultures, 11.3 (2016), pp. 429-451; Matthew Chambers, London and the Modernist Bookshop (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[iv]    Cyril Beaumont, Bookseller at the Ballet: Memoirs 1891 to 1929 (London: C.W. Beaumont, 1975), p. 190.

[v]     Geoffrey Grigson, Recollections: Mainly of Artists and Writers (London: Chatto & Windus, 1984), p. 39.

[vi]    Nigel Vaux Halliday, More Than a Bookshop: Zwemmer’s and Art in the 20th Century (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 1991), p. 72.

[vii]   Andrew Thacker, ‘Aftermath of War: Coterie (1919-1921), New Coterie (1925-1927), Robert Graves and The Owl (1919-1923)’, in Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker, eds., The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Volume One: Britain and Ireland, 1880-1955, pp. 462-484 (p. 478).

[viii]  Harold Monro, Poetry and Drama 1.4 (1913) quoted in Bartholomew Brinkman, ‘“A Place Known to the World as Devonshire Street”: Modernism, Commercialism, and the Poetry Bookshop”, in Huw Osborne, ed., The Rise of the Modernist Bookshop: Books and Commerce of Culture in the Twentieth Century (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2015), pp. 113-130 (pp. 123).

[ix]    Ibid., pp. 123-124.

[x]     Ibid., pp. 114-115.



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