Miles Kington: The eccentric bookshop I'll never forget

One sign on the door read: 'Librarians and suppliers only', another: 'Sorry, no poetry or theology'
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The Independent Online

Gaston's was just off Fleet Street. Up Chancery Lane and down a side street. It is the only bookshop I have come across which didn't admit the public. In the window, there was a sign saying "Librarians and Suppliers Only" . I was a supplier. That is to say, I was the literary editor of Punch. That meant I commissioned a few book reviews every week, and publishers would send copies of their new books to Punch for favour of a review.

"What this means," I was told by Peter Dickinson, my predecessor in the job, "is that we get a lot more books than we can review. Generally, if there is a book someone on the staff really covets, we let him have it, but that still leaves an awful lot of books surplus to requirements. That's where Gaston's comes in useful."

And so I was taken by Peter to Gaston's and introduced as his successor, and encouraged to bring any books I didn't have a need for. They would pay me half the cover price for any books accepted.

"It's a useful side source of income," said Peter. "Punch pays us so badly I have no compunction about pocketing the money, and I hope you won't either."

So two or three times a month I would pick up a pile of books that nobody in their right mind would want to read, and I would traipse up Bouverie Street, or up the back way past El Vino, across Fleet Street, up Chancery Lane past Hodgson's Auction Rooms and into Thomas J Gaston, where one of the experts would scrutinise my offerings, reject a few and pay me for the rest; whereupon I would, as often as not, drop into El Vino to toast my good luck.

"Why does it say 'Librarians and Suppliers Only' on the door?" I asked Peter Dickinson.

"Ah, well, libraries do not like paying the full price for books if they can help it," he said, "and if Gaston's buys the books at half price from us, and then sells them on to libraries at three quarters of the price, everyone benefits."

"Except publishers," I said.

"Except publishers," he said. "And authors, of course. So the only people who ever visit Gaston's are reviewers and literary editors and librarians."

There was another notice on the door. It said: "Sorry, no poetry or theology".

"Sad, really," said Jack. "But it's the law of demand and supply, and there's no demand for them in British libraries."

Jack was a small man with a bristly moustache who was the only one I got to know at Gaston's. He had the odd habit of collecting examples of badly used apostrophes. A notice saying "Baking potatoe's" on a greengrocer's stall was the sort of thing that made him happy. He once spotted a café in the Old Kent Road called "Franks Eat's", with an apostrophe on Eats but not on Franks. That made him very, very happy.

Once, near Christmas, Jack took me out for a lunchtime drink in a nearby pub, along with a publisher's rep. The rep had a case of books with him and, curiously, I asked to see what sort of things he was putting on the market.

"All published by Mitchell Beazley," he said. "Wine, food, drink, that sort of thing. Stuff like this."

And he pulled out Your Kitchen Garden, a beautifully designed book which not only had loads of recipes for vegetables but told you how to grow them all.

"Looks good," I said. "I must get a copy."

"Have one on me," he said, and pressed it into my hands.

"I couldn't possibly."

"Don't be stupid."

For, of course, he was in the same game as I was, handing out books he didn't need, and Your Kitchen Garden had probably just been rejected by Jack, so it must have been nice to meet someone who wanted it, and I wasn't stupid, and I took it, and it has been much handled and used since 1975 when I got it, and it was the only book I ever got from Gaston's, which itself must be long gone by now, because it was only there because of Fleet Street and Fleet Street has vanished too ...

Miles Kington is suffering from seasonal nostalgia but will be back fully recovered tomorrow