Archive Books.

Alan Rusbridger writes for Prospect about what must now, alas, be considered a rara avis:

Forget your Iron Age settlements and your crumbling monasteries. I have an urgent nomination for a Unesco World Heritage Site listing. You will find it in an unprepossessing street not far from Marylebone Station in central London. […] Every town used to have at least one rambling bookshop like Archive Books on Bell Street—a haphazard emporium of the treasured, the rare, the tatty, the forgotten, the never-read and the waiting-to-be-discovered. They were—before business rates and the internet combined to snuff them out—little oases of musty calm away from the unforgiving high streets and identikit chains outside. […]

At Archive Books, the curator—it feels a little vulgar to call him a mere bookseller—is Tim Meaker, 71. He is a benign, lived-in figure who should be played by Bill Nighy if Stephen Frears ever makes a film about a picaresque second-hand bookshop. Tim took over the business nearly 45 years ago and, in the event that Unesco agree to list Archive Books, should be part of that deal.

When the Unesco inspectors arrive they will find Tim and/or his longstanding assistant Jeffrey in an uncomfortably full room that feels as though it has been artfully constructed as a set for a Dickensian period drama. In addition to the floor-to-ceiling books, two broken wooden tennis rackets adorn a shelf-end. Buffalo horns dangle from the ceiling, along with a bit of a whale, assorted puppets (“they represent the Luddites”), a boomerang and what could be a wire wastepaper bin.

When Tim and his wife Michèle, a bookbinder, first took over the shop in 1979, they sat at a table in front of the rare books section. But the table long ago disappeared under a haphazard avalanche of books, packaging, papers and music. Fetching a rare book now involves a hazardous climb over this teetering mountain without ropes or oxygen. “It’s a bit tidier than it was,” notes Tim in a distracted way.

The shop’s ground floor—general books, along with historic newspapers—is long and narrow, subdivided in two, with a backroom that can just about be accessed by Tim to make a cup of tea for browsers, as he often does (sherry is the alternative). On the right as you enter is a wooden barrier with the handwritten legend “MUSIC BELOW PLEASE LIFT”. Here the real magic begins: down some rickety book-lined stairs, past more rubble bags, into a vault of second-hand sheet music. A tiny piano fights for space with thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of scores, books and music albums. […]

I first stumbled upon Archive Books 20 years ago, when I started collecting second-hand sheet music. Between the mid-1800s and the 1920s, it was the habit of publishers to arrange anything that moved into versions suitable for chamber music, to be played in living rooms across Europe. Within months of the first performance of a Tchaikovsky symphony, it would be available in versions for piano solo, piano duet (four hands)—and then four hands on two pianos and even eight hands on two pianos. Amazingly, such scores were held by public libraries across Britain. Before the advent of TV and video games, families and friends would gather of an evening to play. In Germany it was called hausmusik.

At some point, house music fell out of fashion and lending libraries began to ditch their collections. Enter Tim Meaker, who swooped to collect them. Which is why some of the music in the basement room bears the imprint of West Ham public library or Plaistow (both historically poor areas in east London) or Westminster (whose music library was based on donations of thousands of scores by Edwin Evans, the Daily Mail’s music critic until 1945). It’s probable that the entire Marylebone music library lies in boxes in the downstairs backroom—sealed off, like Tutankhamun’s tomb. Tim appears unsure.

That was the start of Tim’s music collection, extended over the years by scooping up the libraries of deceased composers, musicians and critics. “I bought [the pianist] John Ogdon’s music. The scores have Jackson Pollock-like markings all over them—they look quite tempestuous. A few people advised me to sell to an American university, but I haven’t got round to it. They’re still in boxes.” […]

A man who has been browsing on the pavement stalls outside rushes in with excitement. “Oh, this is amazing. I’ve just found a Sunday Times culture section with a piece I wrote in 1996 on Stockhausen.” The speaker turns out to be that newspaper’s former music critic, Paul Driver, who has been coming to the shop for years. He disappears inside and returns with another discovery—an Elisabeth Lutyens score with a handwritten letter challenging the former Times music critic William Mann over a 1962 notice claiming a note was “distinctly flat”. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

There’s much more at the link, including some great photos; I need hardly say that it’s my kind of place (I’m reminded of my beloved Troubadour Books). Thanks, Hans!


  1. “picaresque” – how odd. I think he means picturesque.

  2. David Marjanović says

    the curator—it feels a little vulgar to call him a mere bookseller—

    “There are those who call me…


  3. Before any German speakers swoop in to make the correction, I’ll mention that “hausmusik” should be Hausmusik.

  4. Moreover, Hausmusik is not the same thing as house music.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    Tim Meaker does not appear to strictly fit the classical definition of a picaro, but perhaps in a looser or metaphorical sense … Enough to make his adventures picaresque, in a perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek way.

  6. Yeah, “picaresque” doesn’t feel wrong to me here — an unusual but understandable usage — whereas “picturesque” would just be a boring cliché.

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