the inevitability of book shopping in London

written the afternoon of Tuesday, February 4, 2014


At the moment, I'm writing from the restaurant at La Suite West, in the first course of their fully vegan afternoon tea service: a selection of finger sandwiches served on a slate slab and garnished -- rather brilliantly -- with a slice of lime covered in large pieces of cinnamon.  It's like an aromatic palate cleanser, and I love it.

It's a perfect pause after a morning spent walking around Portobello Road, both to the market stalls as well as to the gorgeous little shops surrounding them.

There is a certain inevitability to book shopping in London.  The sheer number of bookstores is enough to convince any literate person that they are worth visiting -- each one of them.  In the suburbs of Chicago, where I usually find myself, the only book-buying options are Barnes & Noble and the internet.  London has their Waterstones, but much more important than that are all the out-of-the-way places, like the alley in Soho full of antiquarian booksellers, or Lutyens & Rubinstein in Notting Hill, where I purchased a charming children's story in verse: a gift for my mother.

On Monday morning, feeling tired from travel and sick from breakfast, I dropped into the London Review Bookshop, having discovered it quite by accident en route to the British Museum.  Again, the inevitability had overtaken me.

I say "inevitability," but what I mean to say is perhaps "irresistibility."  Entering a bookstore is a gift to oneself, like giving one's soul a sigh of relief, as if to rest assured that human endeavors -- knowledge, art, curiosity -- are well attended to.  It is the same relief one feels, despite the bustle of fellow attendees, in museums, performance halls, and university lecture rooms.

And public gardens.  Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park are, as Evelyn Waugh described, "just the place to bury a crock of gold.  I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I'm old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember."  When I walked through this afternoon, they were filled with children, runners, and all manners of dogs painted in Renaissance portraiture.

Pausing in the garden behind Kensington Palace, I was struck by the thought that I may very well never see this place again.  This fountain, these lawns, these halls.  But I don't take dozens of photos.  I don't attempt to record and share these images; only these feelings.  After seeing and walking through the real space, what photo can inspire equivalent awe?  What image of a perfect scone -- no matter how beautifully staged and lit -- can summon its texture on your tongue?

Few photos for me then.  I'd rather remember impressions than images, at least for this week.  If that changes, expect this space to look more like a "travel blog."

But speaking of scones: La Suite West's afternoon tea is not to be missed.  How refreshing it is to taste thoughtful vegan food (rather than simple vegan "accommodation"), including a delightful chocolate and coconut cake delicately topped with a single, perfect raspberry.  I was tempted to take a photo of the gorgeous desserts, but reason overtook me.  I ate them instead.