Books are dead, long live books: a visit to John Sandoe Books, London

A visit to the cosy John Sandoe bookstore in Chelsea, London, is a kind of philosophical experience that has you second guessing the role of books in your life and the new position of e-readers.

There’s no way that holding a sterile digital device or clicking to buy online could have the same romance as visiting that classic picture postcard bookstore, like John Sandoe’s. It’s full of the smell of books and the nooks and crannies where the adventure of reading and the sense of history is everywhere: from the thick glass door that jolts forward with a jingle, to the jungle of books, criss-crossed like bricks across heaving wall to wall shelves, even propped up against the jagged narrow staircase as you delve deeper into this literary haven.

It’s got me thinking – there’s a certain pleasure to be had thumbing through the pages of a favourite book. Nothing makes me happier than a crisp new book, those first dents crinkling the spine, fingers impatiently curled around the next page in a race to reach the end then, triumphantly placing it on my bookshelf. Here it becomes part of an emotional roadmap, allowing outsiders to gain an insight to my life, just by scanning the very contents of my bookshelf.

Perhaps the e-reader should be the next step for me then in my literacy journey? I’d be following the trend, with more than 40% of people in the UK currently reading e-books and forecasts indicating digital reading will only double over the next year. But to me it’s almost a betrayal, sending my faithful paper books into a dust-covered abyss.

I put my dilemma to Johnny De Falbe, co-owner of the John Sandoe bookstore. The ultimate bookworm, he has worked at the store since 1986, and has published three novels of his own.

“Every book on your shelf is a piece of your mental furniture,” he muses. “They are powerful repositories of our sense of self. Something like Kindle is never going to take that over.”

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The “apparent haphazardness” of the store, De Falbe suggests, leads customers to make unexpected finds by turning a corner or, like an archaeological dig, lifting a book to reveal another gem underneath.

It certainly has the right allure for celebrity clientele such as Elton John, Nicky Haslam, and Theo Fennell, who once raved in The Daily Telegraph: “John Sandoe’s is now London’s most open secret. Not only a fantastic bookshop but staffed by the most reliable critics in the world.”

Despite preferring the reader’s connection to a physical book, De Falbe’s own works are available digitally. He admits: “It doesn’t matter how people read my books, as long as they are reading.”

But the “possibility of serendipity” John Sandoe’s prides itself on just can’t be recreated in the digital world, he notes. Ironically, as I’m scouring the tightly stacked shelves, “Stop What You Are Doing and Read This” magically appears: a book about books, analysing people’s relationships with reading.

It makes a point that sends alarm bells ringing: whether digital reading is having a permanent impact on our brain’s deep reading processes, which enable analogical thought, inferential reasoning, perspective taking, critical analysis, and imagination. These processes may deteriorate or disappear in future generations, trained to give knee-jerk responses to the information cluttering their screens, whether it’s a Tweet, Facebook update, or blog post.

I spoke to Oxford University psychology professor Baroness Susan Greenfield, who has been studying this and warns, “we could be selling our next generation short”. A generation that has less sensory experiences from reading fewer books may end up with a decreased imagination or attention span, she explains.

Is it already happening? YouTube is rife with videos of babies using iPads like pros; curiously applying the same finger scrolling technique to paper magazines. Students no longer scribble in the margins of heavy texts, but download video-enhanced iBooks.

John Sandoe’s De Falbe insists that the so-called death of books and ensuing demise of the brain is a media fantasy. Books are being produced with more care than ever, he claims, turning them into premium, sought after items. British Library curator Adrian Edwards reinforces this, recalling how the handwritten manuscript became, and still is, a prized object after it was superceded by the manual printing press in the 1450s. And, as he points out, the continued evolution of the printing press drew a new generation of previously excluded people into reading.

Reluctantly, I have to agree that parallels can be drawn with the future of digital reading, remembering De Falbe’s earlier point about increased accessibility being more important than debating how people are reading.

Who’s right? I can’t help but think that what we hold in our hands inevitably impacts the story unfolding in our heads, although only time will tell. But will it be too late?

John Sandoe Books, Blacklands Terrace, Chelsea, London.

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8 thoughts on “Books are dead, long live books: a visit to John Sandoe Books, London

  1. A lot of hate for e-books floating around. 😀 Enjoyed your article. I think haphazardness is the true hallmark of any great book store. The newer ones that I visit, the ones usually found in shopping malls, simply don’t have the charm. Also, the staff usually need to bury their head in the computers just to see if a particular book is on shelf, and where to find it. Pathetic.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I haven’t got an e-reader yet, as the post says, I am too attached to how books look on my shelf, but I haven’t ruled out getting one in the near future purely for convenience…. I agree, I think haphazardness adds to the magical nature of a true book shop, otherwise you may as well look on Amazon for your next read!

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    2. e-books are great as textbooks or technical books, that is throw-away books to be read once. And a definite no-no for books one may want to keep and revisit. At least that’s my own philosophy.

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  2. Thank you for this post. I have an e-reader, as it was a gift, but I rarely use it. I continue to buy books because like you I feel e-reader would be the ultimate betrayal. I particularly love visiting old bookstores and even old charity shops. I would definitely be visiting John Sandoe

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  3. Thanks Dhanya! I think I might get a Kindle if I ever went travelling ie not just a regular holiday but at the moment I am also getting a kick out of buying cheap books in charity shops, I like the element of surprise! PS I loved your anniversary outfit, I ended up trying to buy that dress from Debenhams but they ran out of my size!!

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