Friday, 9 January 2009

R.I.P. Ian Shipley Books

London's famous street of books, though for some years in steady decline, has finally lost its one remaining jewel. After almost thirty years of trading at number 70 Charing Cross Road, Shipley Specialist art booksellers finally closed its doors on Christmas eve. I began my art book apprenticeship there, in the early weeks of Ian's relocation from the tiny shop in Floral Street where the story began. Always ahead of the game, Ian had anticipated the renaissance flowering of Covent Garden, but wisely got out before it withered on the vine, opting instead to occupy the one remaining old-world establishment on the street once renown for its bookshops. It was to become a mecca for art- book lovers the world over and, adored by art directors and bibliophiles from Osaka to Ostend, Shipley's chaotic interior became as famous an image as the fireplace at Charleston farmhouse; indeed the shop's own fire was a welcome respite on cold winter mornings for all who came through the door. It was to be the model for the bookshop in the big-screen adaptations of the Harry Potter sagas, as well as the backdrop for innumerable fashion shoots the world over. Advertising agencies sent their raw recruits to scour the shelves for new ideas; cynically, we knew there were none, as gleefully, we anticipated the outcome of a hundred and one potential campaigns that would have had their nascence there, a certain degree of schadenfreude gained from their absurd enquiries for images of 'Art Deco water' or 'Fifties' food photography. In truth, no request surprised or fazed us, and if it was a slow day in the shop, we might even take a small pinch of delight in their resultant incredulity, were we finally able to pull the inevitable rabbit from the proverbial top hat. Here it was that we heard of Derek Jarman's initial plans for Prospect Cottage and the excitement when he began to wrest his magician's garden from the Dungeness shingle. Later also, his joy at meeting Keith Collins, who was to become not merely the centre of Derek's personal universe, but soon became a regular visitor and constant supporter of the shop in his own right, particularly after Derek's death, when his role as companion was all-too sadly exchanged for that of executor. It was a dull day on Charing Cross Road if Derek did not grace us with a visit. I well recall his furious pacing up and down the floor, regaling us with some shaggy-dog story or other, some tale of bad behavior either witnessed (or, more often than not, participated in) that would invariably end with his infectious laughter ricocheting about the walls. The first outing for his black tar and gold leaf paintings was in Shipley's windows, and in the week after relocating to Charing Cross Road, the staging of an exhibition of original costumes for his film 'Carravaggio'; the as-then still shuttered windows providing that extra theatrical flourish to the baroque n' roll grandeur of Sandy Powell's stunning creations. Bruce Weber would sometimes arrive with his retinue of pretty boys and a myriad of assorted stylists and courtiers in tow; Gilbert and George signed their books by the fireplace; Peter Blake brought people to visit. The great John Berger was either recognised or not, in typical modesty caring neither one way or the other. Susan Sontag might drop by with Annie Liebowitz. A generation of American tourists would enquire as to whether we were the shop in '84 Charing Cross Road', Helene Hampf's engaging love-letter to London's street of books; crestfallen to learn we weren't, they stayed on nevertheless for the atmosphere. Whilst more than happy to promote the homespun hokeyness of the fixtures and fittings, Ian far-anticipated the online revolution; indeed, he could be said to have originated Internet bookbuying, seeking out the advice of those techno-wizards who too, had seen the future, often enlisting their help into the bargain. Other booksellers, wrested out of their fusty, Dickensian atrophy, sought his advice as to the brave new world of antiquarian bookselling as he was to envision it.

Of primary consideration, however was Shipley's pride in the ability to find for its customers, items that they would surely discover nowhere else. An obscure Festival of Britain brochure from the shires might easily sit side by side with a flimsy onionskin broadsheet for some long-forgotten Stephen Tennant exhibition. Andy Warhol collectors would happen across something so ephemeral that even completists would marvel in ignorance of its existence. Anoracks for snippets of a fad long-departed, would very often leave the premises dumfounded at the discovery of the unseen or the hitherto-unconsidered in their particular field of whimsy. In short, we sought out the unique and the uncommon, and delighted in dealing it, and for this, was our reputation for the rarified rightfully gained. Apres la Deluge, the lookalike establishments in Japan, with fixtures and fitttings all-too eerily familiar. Closer, much closer to home, the generations of wannabe establishments, but with the soft chairs; the latte-whilst-you-browse culture that we could not have dreamt of anticipating in our experience of the specialist book trade. Now, alas, the fire is extinguished for the final time, and the dizzying amount of stock, garnered over a thirty-year tenure lies forlorn in storage. Where now, the papier-mache cherub that, hoisted aloft for the Christmas of a decade or so ago, but somehow never consigned to the basement as twelfth night came around, to glitter instead in perpetuity behind the fanlight for all the seasons to come? And where, too, the little Eiffel Tower souvenir, unnoticed by all put the sharpest-eyed, that perched surreally atop the fireplace shelf? At Shipley, it must be remembered, the devil was always in the detail. Trends burst forth and were quickly extinguished in the clamor of the moment. Fads and fancies came and went - and more often than not, we would have stocked a book on the vast majority of them. Neo-Romantic hairstyles? No problem. Russian Prison tattooes? - We'll just pop downstairs and look for you, sir...

 Generations of staff have come and gone, friendships forged and careers kept afloat. Lest we forget the roll-call of stalwarts; Amanda King, Lindy Usher, Clem Crosby, Nancy Campbell, Laura Massino, Felix Cromey, Stephen Conrad, Steven Hemmens, Andrew Lee, Zoe Taylor, to name but a few as well as the 'youngblood' generation who saw it through until the finish; Rowland Thomas, Phoebe Blatten, Sue Findlay and the lovely Tristram. Simon Costin swears that he came in to say hello on the basis of a bet: a thirty year friendship is the result of such reckless behavior. Lawrence Mynott still recalls the 'incident with the cheque'- with understandable pique. Mention, too for the angel of the accounts department, Ms. Sandra Rose, and the countless others who have served their tenure at number 70. We remember also, those members of the old Zwemmer crew that were flung into the melting-pot when that once-august establishment came into Ian's hands. Then it was that the flagship shop at number 70 gained a flotilla of the erstwhile photography and graphic design shops. Old rivals-turned new colleagues, Clare de Rouen (that doyenne of the photography monograph) and Johnny, her consort, who continued to hold his post at the counter of 72. Hats off, then and hurl them high, for with its passing, an era is well and truly over.


  1. Alas, sad news indeed. My husband and I (from Berkeley, California) stopped in one morning--June 29, 1996, to be precise--to get directions to Lisson Gallery. A conversation was started with Clem Crosby, which continues to this day, along with great friendship with Clem and many other London artists we have met over the years, thanks to Shipley. Thank you for the notes. Nina Zurier

  2. Dear Nina,
    Thank you for your posting. The passing of the bookshop is, of course a personal sadness to me; so much of my time was spent working there throughout the eighties and, again from 2003. Clem and I worked together throughout the nineties, and I see him sporadically. I believe that he is doing very well with his work. It is debatable whether online book-buying has sounded the death-knell for specialist shops like Shipley's; rather, I am convinced that folk will always seek out the rare and the unusual, and feel better for the personal touch that we always tried to provide. I beleive that my friend and former associate at Shipley's Nan Campbell will be producing a small book based on interviews with former staff and customers; if it happens, I will feature it on this site. kind regards, and thank you for taking the trouble to contact me. Graham