Tuesday 12 November 2013

Looking for what's right in front of you

Some people remember birthdays, others faces or cars or clothes, I remember books.

Tell me when your birthday is and unless it’s around an already significant date I’ll have forgotten it before the conversation is over, but tell me about a book you’d like to read and five years later, when I stumble across it in the forgotten corner of a bookshop, a lightbulb will go on in my brain and I’ll pick it up for you.

Which is exactly what happened when I visited my sister’s local in Chiswick, but first I need to tell you about the bookshop itself. Stephen Foster Books is on Chiswick High Road, less than a five minute walk from Turnham Green tube. Apparently the oldest shop in the area, having opened in the 18th century, its traditional front stood out among the trendy offerings of the upmarket village, even without the tables of books that were revealed once it finally stopped raining.

The prevalence of hardback spines and original dust jackets mean that on first inspection the shop probably doesn’t look much different to the early days of its life, making it both fascinating but not immediately accessible to the modern shopper. However, once I took the time to really look at the books on display I soon relaxed into my surroundings.

This was probably helped somewhat by my sighting of a collection I’ve long dreamed of finding – the complete, original, 12 volumes of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Unfortunately its (accurate) £180 price tag put it a little out of my price range, but I did pause for some time wondering if I could live off bread and water to justify its purchase. Eventually allowing reality to take hold, I pulled myself away and began to look for a book I could afford.

Pausing at the children’s section I was sorely tempted by some of the original Peter Rabbit books, but also aware that such gems should go to a home where they’ll be properly appreciated for their historical as well as entertainment value I moved on. And so I found myself browsing the fiction – where I was pleased to note Iain M Banks sits on the same wall as Dickens.

Leaning more to antiquarian stock than regular secondhand, I confess I did find myself beginning to wonder if I could justify the purchase of any of the beautiful books that had caught my eye. And so I ended up randomly stood in front of the cookery section, attempting to work through my budget for the month.

Which is when something quite remarkable caught my eye.

Years ago a conversation with my sister’s better half (he’s the main reader in the couple) had strayed to the subject of secondhand books and those odd titles every reader keeps an eye out for when first encountering a new bookshop. A particular request of his had been crime and thriller writer Len Deighton’s cookbook. Obviously.

So imagine my surprise when I looked up to see Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book directly in front of me on the shelf, in a bookshop less than ten minutes’ walk from their home. Cue lots of frantic text messaging with my sister to check he’d not already found it, and even more surprise for me as I soon spotted a couple of the author’s French cookbooks too.

My rule when bookshopping is to buy one book per shop, but I was so taken by Stephen Foster Books that I found myself reluctant to leave without something for myself. So I returned to the tables in front of the shop and picked up a Beatrix Potter, a more ordinary copy than the ones I'd seen inside.

At the till I did my usual thing of chatting with the bookseller, but this time it was he who sparked the conversation, inspired by my purchase - talking about Len Deighton and his love of cooking (I now have to see The Ipcress File and pay particular attention to a scene where eggs are cooked).

A few hours later I proudly presented the cookbook to its happy new owner with instructions he pay more attention to his local bookshop - I wonder if those French cookbooks have moved in yet?

Stephen Foster Books
183 Chiswick High Road, Chiswick, London W4 2DR
Tel: 020 89952768


  1. My partner has a proof copy of the Action Cookbook (that dates him!) and we still use it. It has a foolproof method for cooking rice. It's excellent. I'm sure you'll be enjoying some meals cooked from it.

    1. Wow, for it to still be used after so long is a sign of a good cookbook, I need to secure an invitation to dinner!


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