Amid our generic high streets, one bookshop offers a refuge

With its toppling book towers and rubble bags full of sheet music, Archive Books in central London is a rare treasure trove of hidden gems. But for how much longer?
July 19, 2023

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.

There’s a version of the kind of sanctuary they offer in the junk shop in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where Winston Smith and Julia escape from the brutal dreariness of a society intent on severing any links with the past. “To know that it was there, inviolate, was almost the same as being in it,” wrote Orwell. It was “a world, a pocket of the past where extinct animals could walk.”

Orwell’s shop (“the tiny interior was in fact uncomfortably full”) was presided over by a Mr Charrington (not quite who he seemed) who “had always vaguely the air of being a collector rather than a tradesman.” 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.

“Chaos” would not be a fair way of describing the shop: Tim and Jeffrey between them have an approximate idea where to find much of the stock. But nor could you reasonably describe it as “order”. Particularly not the multiple plastic rubble bags of unsorted books and music crammed into every surface, stair and corridor—refugees from a storeroom that Tim can no longer afford to keep.

Before the pandemic there was a discernible system: the sheet music was generally in labelled boxes, even if you had to move a dozen to get to the container you wanted. But now the vocal and choral sections are impassable—deluged by what feels like a truckload of more bagged-up scores waiting to be sorted.

And behind this barricade there is yet another room of music, along with an 1830s fortepiano.

When did Tim last manage to fight his way into that room?

“Well, Howard Carter should be there with his lamp,” he laughs nervously—and, indeed, you could imagine the venerable pharaonic archaeologist using his candle and chisel to unearth untold musical treasures.

“When did I last go in? Possibly 20 years since. Fifteen years at least.”

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.”

The day I visit, he has begun pricing a stack of sheet music a metre high while Jeffrey, at the back of the store, sifts through a precariously high pile of books. They reminisce about past customers.

And then there was the regular Friday afternoon group—Bob, John, Barry, Michel and more—who gathered for a cup of tea and a singsong on the downstairs piano. Some wore flat caps: Tim refers to them collectively as the “cat-flappers”.

“Recently the pianist Marc-André Hamelin graced us. He found some nice things, didn’t he? But he didn’t play our piano. Barry Humphries once came in, didn’t he? But he didn’t buy anything. His interest was in Jewish music, which we had so much of.”

At the end of each day, Tim scribbles down the books he’s sold in an A4 diary, with pencilled notes on any memorable customers and the total takings: £617 for one recent day, £275 for another. He has 43 such diaries, one for each year of running the shop.

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.”

That anticipation of stumbling on what Donald Rumsfeld called the “unknown unknowns” is what keeps a loyal customer base returning. Tim has little interest in the internet, barely has a website and never got round to doing mail order. The peak of his marketing activities was advertising in out-of-town Yellow Pages: older readers may remember the telephone directory and its 1980s advertising campaign, featuring a fictional author called JR Hartley looking for his own book. The Yellow Pages themselves died in print four years ago.

If you want an out-of-time experience, I urge you to visit Archive Books—preferably after 11am, for time-keeping has never been Tim’s strongest point. Allow two or three hours. And to Unesco I say: act before it is too late, and before such bookshops go the way of the Yellow Pages.

The World Heritage Site selection criteria include a demand that potential candidates bear “a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition… which is living or which has disappeared.”

Archive Books, surely your time has come?

Photography for Prospect by Sarah M Lee