Words Chloe Moss
Photography Kirk Truman
“What makes Bloomsbury important is the culture that’s here…”
Exit Russell Square tube station, having conquered its seemingly never-ending steps, bypass the crowded Brunswick Centre, veer off the main shopping drag, and you will find one of the great treasures of Bloomsbury. In an unassuming location – next to Waitrose and down a flight of stairs – is Skoob, the second-hand bookshop that is home to possibly the largest privately owned book collection in the world. Venture down those stairs in search of a particular book and you will not only find it but most likely come away with several other titles you didn’t even know you were looking for. Yes, Skoob is a treasure-trove of a place, its tightly-packed shelves playing host to around 65,000 volumes on the shop floor alone, another 45,000 in basement storage, and around one million in a warehouse in Oxford. If you didn’t believe me when I said it was a large collection, those numbers should do the talking.
It’s fitting that Skoob – which opened 1978 on Sicilian Avenue, near Bloomsbury Square, and has operated from a variety of premises around London – is now back in the literary haven of Bloomsbury, where it has made its home for the past 9 years. With such a vast collection, your first question might be (well, mine was) where does it all come from? Chris, the manager and the man behind the seemingly endless rows of books, tells me that it comes from anywhere and everywhere. Oxford colleges, London academics, people downsizing, or their own lucky finds. Thankfully for Chris, we Londoners are typically short on space and always looking to shed a few volumes. The book collector of today is changing. Space is hard to come by, and even if you do have some room, downsizing is a reality. Not only that, but we’re constantly on the move. So as Londoners find themselves running out of space or leading a transient lifestyle that makes them reluctant to be weighed down, Chris and the rest of the Skoob staff are there to pick up the literary remains. They gather collections both great and small and of every conceivable genre to fill their shelves, which burst with books for every kind of reader.
“We undertake not to shred, and to find another read, another buyer, for a book,” says Chris. All of the books they collect, even yet more Jilly Cooper paperbacks, will eventually end up on the shop floor or on the carefully selected online shop. Skoob is committed to continually replenishing whatever sells with something better, so that customers are never at a loss to find something. Restocking happens every time a sale is made, but the process is not random. As Chris explains: “If I just replace that with any old book, then gradually the quality goes down. So what we need to do every time a book sells is replace it with a better one. Better than the gap that’s left.” It’s the sort of approach that demonstrates how much attention Skoob pays to its customers: the staff always want to find the right book for every shopper. “We recognise that all our customers are individuals and aren’t going to be herded into buying the latest fashion.”
I am one of the many customers to which Skoob caters. As a student I thankfully discovered Skoob not far into my first year of reading English Literature. I say thankfully because had I not taken a friend’s recommendation early on into my first few weeks of living a stone’s throw from Russell Square, my three years of education in London would have wound up being a lot more expensive. Even when I moved out of the area, I still returned to Skoob on a regular basis, not simply for practical reasons but out of a fondness for its packed shelves. I never left empty handed and rarely with just the items on my list; testament not just to my shopping habit, but also to how well stocked this shop is. If I went in looking for an affordable copy of Little Dorrit, I left with an armful of Faulkner as well.
The last decade has seen a huge change not just in the make-up of Londoners, but more specifically in the capital’s student population. They buy fewer books, and when they do, they go second-hand, both online and in penny-saving sanctuaries like Skoob. This is great news for the shop, whether students have grouped together and shared the cost of one reading list, or whether they go solo as I do. It’s great news for impoverished readers too, and makes Skoob an utter haven for people like me, looking to shave off some academic costs so there’s something left for cocktails. The easy atmosphere, extensive back catalogue and low prices make the shop a destination for London’s students, particularly given its location close to many university halls.
For regulars, students or bibliophilic tourists, Skoob is more than just a Bloomsbury institution and a shrine to the area’s literary history. As the shop continues to evolve and grow, as the staff forever restock the shelves, Skoob continues that history in the best possible way. Chris will keep buying books because of his desire to always delight his customers and to maintain the literary legacy of the area.
“One of the things about Britain is the vibrant literary culture”. Bloomsbury, synonymous as it is with the names of Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, and other key members of the Bloomsbury Group, has played host to much of that cultural history. The plethora of blue plaques and famous landmarks are a testament to this, and people flock here for that very reason. Despite its celebrated history, the area is increasingly in danger of being homogenised. Seventeen bookshops have closed in the area in the last 10 years. That’s why Skoob, in its dedication to continually cultivating its collection and looking to the future, is one of the most important treasures of Bloomsbury. Long may it remain here – if only to convince me that I need more Faulkner.