The long-awaited new flagship Foyles store at 107 Charing Cross Road opened to much fanfare last week. Emma Smith went to the launch party to check it out.
White walls, bright lights, airy spaces, sleek lines and celestial voices (in the form of Foyles Festival Chorus choir) greeted the eager throngs of publishing industry guests at the Foyles launch last Monday. This is the bookshop upon whose brand new shoulders lies the hefty weight of bookselling hope.
Awash with those staples of any book event worth its salt – champagne and canapés – there was a great hum of conversation and curiosity at the former Central St. Martin’s site. Even Nick from The Apprentice was there. People were hungry to see what this bookshop was capable of delivering. Way back in February 2013, I went along to a Foyles workshop to help re-imagine the store – talk of gin palaces and ‘retail theatre’ buzzed around the room. And now it’s come to life. But without so much gin.
Light from the central atrium filtered down onto company chairman, Christopher Foyle, as he welcomed the crowd. Brothers William and Gilbert Foyle opened the Charing Cross branch in the 1920s and it has stood as a pillar of London literary life ever since. Christopher likened the developments in independent bookselling to that of the relationship between electric lighting and candles. Despite new technology, the earlier method sells on. Foyles hopes to be that eternal flame; a source of illumination rekindled to serve book buyers and to continue being ‘the greatest bookshop in the world’.
In reality, everyone knows what Foyles is up against – referred to graciously as something to do with ‘great rivers’ or ‘female warriors in Greek mythology’ – yet you can’t help but admire what they’ve done and what they might become. Staff working overtime to move half a million books just shows the collective goodwill towards this new venture. And with an ambitious star-studded launch festival (guests include Grayson Perry, Hilary Mantel, Jarvis Cocker and Michael Palin to name a few) there are no signs of momentum wavering. It’s a very human kind of warmth which ultimately pervades this shop; the personal knowledge, the heritage and the sheer drive, culture and spirit of Foyles leaves you with a feeling of optimism, albeit a cautious one for now.
Paring back the whizz-bang ideas of the workshop last year, they’ve created a streamlined and realistic cultural hub – keeping books at its heart, of course. Four miles of shelving is definitely enough to get lost in. Branching out from the standard bookseller remit, Foyles have introduced literary tours, built café space, created an exhibition area and have produced a healthy roster of events and talks to reach out to customers. They are really trying to make books come alive and speak to people.
At the launch, Caitlin Moran declared bookshops ‘the sexiest places’ to hang out in. While I’m not sure I totally agree with her hypothesis, I do think that there is something visceral about being in a bookstore; a physical feeling that isn’t experienced in the same way online. They should be places of excitement, exploration, intimacy and inspiration all at once (and maybe also a place to buy that last minute birthday card). Familiarity and nostalgia is one thing to encompass, but shining a light on a new bookselling path is quite another. Foyles have certainly gone at it all cylinders firing, and I, for one, hope that they will remain as a beacon burning bright.