Israel Simmons was not a tall man. Although I was still at school when I was first introduced to him by my father (and, like my father, I have never achieved more than medium height), my recollection is that he seemed to be looking up, with a slightly surprised expression. Perhaps he was wondering if, like my father, I would be a regular buyer of books in his shop on Fleet Street. Perhaps he was just wondering at the many and varied types to be found on Fleet Street back in the 1960s.
His bookshop – now long gone, of course – was at Number 16. It was a wonderful place despite the fact that, or perhaps because, it was completely unsuited to being a bookshop; or a shop of any description for that matter. It was configured like a two-storey railway carriage. From the outside the building looked impossibly narrow; too narrow to be a building at all really. You entered through a recessed door off Fleet Street, just by the entrance to the Temple down Inner Temple Lane, and turned sharp right into the narrowest of spaces. In front of you was a sort of tunnel, and to your right and left were books. I suppose they were in fact displayed for sale, but the impression was simply of books lined up on shelves, rather than of any attempt at selling. There was only ever one copy of each book – no titles piled high in expectation. You either asked for what you wanted, or you looked through the shelves rather as you might in a library until you found something you wanted. And my recollection is that you always did.
Downstairs – and I discovered the downstairs on that first visit when I was looking for some moderately obscure school textbooks – Mr Simmons had his stockroom. That is not to say it was where he kept the recently delivered books. They were kept on the ground floor, in the cubby hole that served as an office, and spilled out in everybody’s way. What he had in the basement were essential books that a serious bookseller had to have in stock just in c
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