Friday, 16 March 2012

Vintage Penguins in London

Black Gull's Christmas window - for Karyn
I was barely looking for Penguins by the time I reached London, as I knew there was a box of them waiting there for me. They were books with an unusual history, found in a squat previously owned by a Penguin employee and all dating from the 1960s. And they were in pristine condition; I doubt they had ever been read.

They came from a delightful secondhand book shop on the High Rd in East Finchley called Black Gull Books, and were purchased by Adam, who had sent me this tempting photo of their Christmas window display, followed by a list of every Penguin they had for sale; some of the Penguins pictured here are now mine. We visited the shop together late one Friday afternoon as it was just starting to get dark, and I found a few more I couldn't resist (and this must be the most wonderful aspect of blogging - the opportunity to form friendships, based on a mutual love of books and literature, with people you would otherwise never have met).

There is a second Black Gull Books near Camden Lock which also has Penguins scattered throughout its shelves, all priced between 2 and 3 pounds. On the morning I was there they had quite a few of the beautifully patterned Penguin Poets which you don't often find for sale.

My very favourite charity store, and the one I always head to as soon as I get to London, is the Oxfam on the Kentish Town Rd. This is partly nostalgia, as it was there that I found my very first copy of Penguin no. 1 (Ariel) many years ago, and although I have since found several copies, I'll never forget the moment I saw that longed-for blue spine. This time they had a stack of green Michael Innes titles for 50 pence each, and other Penguins for around 2 pounds. And I found a few more at the Oxfam store on Portobello Rd in Notting Hill (along with loads of less common Enid Blyton titles for my daughter).

One of the stallholders on the Portobello Road pointed me in the direction of the Notting Hill Comic and Book Exchange near the Notting Hill Gate tube station. I'm trying to think how to describe the attitude of the staff - reluctant, uninterested, condescending, disdainful? Perhaps it was just that a week of travelling about in the welcoming countryside had left me unprepared for the widespread unfriendliness of London (though with some very notable exceptions), or perhaps my taste in books does mark me as gauche. Either way it was still worth a visit, as the floor to ceiling shelves were packed with interesting books priced from as little as one pound, and the basement held a series of enticing rooms filled with books selling for 50 pence each. Books downstairs were grouped together by spine colour making it easy to scan for Penguins, and to notice a shelf filled with Viragos.

And then in the afternoon, the opposite experience: Chris from Skoob Books was the most delightful, friendly and charming book shop proprietor I have ever met. We didn't even need to tell him what we were after - he simply inferred it, perhaps from our enthusiasm at the sight of those shelves of orange and green spines, or perhaps the way we scanned them for unfamiliar titles, or from our restricted focus. Anyway, he came over, introduced himself, and mentioned that he had hundreds (perhaps it was thousands) more Penguins locked away downstairs.

I was heading off to meet Adam and his family, so I searched quickly for the two Penguins I was still hoping to find (a copy of no. 2533 The Last Tresilians to give to Simon when I met him in Oxford, but unfortunately no luck there, and no. 2914 Clochemerles-Les-Bains which they had!). I left a very contented Pam locked in Skoob's underground bunker with shelves and shelves of mixed vintage and recent unpriced Penguins, and returned later in the evening to find her the happy owner of about another forty books.

And so back to the post office, so that Pam could post home another five packages and I could post home one, and another resolution to find no more books. I suggested a trip to Camden markets to browse the clothing stalls and sample some of the interesting foods you would never find in Australia, but even there we came upon more cheap Penguins.

This wonderful rambling book stall is on the very lowest level of the Stables market. The bookcases are arranged to form a series of small alcoves, and the books seem shelved almost without order, so that the search for books had the feel of a treasure hunt. I left with another 15 Penguins purchased for under 15 pounds, though I could easily have bought more. And then it was on to Oxford, still with a too-heavy suitcase.

Some of my new Penguins

Vintage Penguins in Amsterdam
Vintage Penguins in Newcastle
Vintage Penguins in Lyme Regis
Vintage Penguins in Oxford
Vintage Penguins in Adelaide


  1. I think I would've been tempted just to walk out of that shop where the staff were condescending. I just don't understand that kind of attitude. But it sounds like that was a minor irritation in what was an enjoyable trip.

    1. Hi Joanne,

      At the time I wondered if it was me - too old? too female? - but then Simon at SIAB posted the same day referring to his visit to the shop and the staff's gruffness, and he is young and male, so now I think they are just like that.

  2. You would think this quest for Penguins is for my own benefit, my heart cheers every time you make another find. I stopped into Skoob books last September on my way to Heathrow and would have liked to stay longer than I had. Next trip over I'm adding Stables market to my list!

    1. Hi Darlene,

      Camden is a wonderful place to visit on a Saturday morning, even if it is just to look at the people who go there, and to sample the wonderful and unusual foreign foods on offer. And I actually found 3 stalls selling Penguins at the Stable markets; I only mentioned the cheapest and the best. It had a whole shelf devoted to Viragos: (, and it was so disorganised that it probably had many more hidden on other shelves. And the Kentish Town Oxfam is only one tube stop away.

  3. Wow, it sounds as though you had a wonderful time.

  4. Edging ever closer to Oxford!
    A shame The Last Tresilians didn't turn up, but I shall certainly keep my eye out for it until I find it... and I'm grateful for your mention of several bookshops/stalls in London that I don't know - I shall add them to my itinerary when I'm there later.

  5. nice update to the book buying trip. wish i had known of the other ones as well, i would have popped in there to give a look see. as for the "unfriendliness" of londoners, i think that is more specific to where one goes? for example, at a superior bookshop such as Hatchard's (where Lord Peter Wimsey buys his new books, if you read that series), they are all friendliness and more than happy to help- although perhaps it also helps to look a certain way (well dressed, well spoken etc). When you buy a book (or books) there, they say "Thank you" as if you are doing them a favour. best from new york.

  6. It sounds like you had a great time. I'm going to Oxford soon, living in hope of good bookshops there.



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