Thirty Thousand Streets

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Tlon books RIP

I made a fairly typical foray down the Walworth Road at the weekend, to nose round some charity shops, with my ultimate destination being the Elephant and Castle shopping centre. Hardly the most auspicious of locations, and I'll freely admit the only reason I ever ventured into the big concrete and plastic cube at all was to visit the slightly creased second hand bookshop therein: Tlon Books.

The last time I went up I picked up a couple of half decent crime novels—Dog Eat Dog by Edward Bunker and Blood in Brooklyn by Gary Loveski—for a very reasonable price, and was returning to see if I could repeat the trick.

Imagine my dismay then, when I rocked up to discover that it was shut. Dismay that only deepened when I read the cursory typed letter affixed to the door, which stated effectively that the proprerty had been seized by the landlord, and anyone attempting to gain entry to reclaim stock would be subject to legal proceedings, or perhaps more likely in Southwark, visited by a man and his dog for a 'chat'.

So another one bites the dust.

With Wordsworth and now Tlon gone, the only Bookshop nearby is the one in Brixton (as far as I know) and it really is something of a loss for me. I do a lot of reading both in the small hours and and on the bus and tube, and probably get through two books a week, so being able to buy cheaper second-hand is a boon.

Tlon books wasn't the cheapest, but it was fairly priced, and I enjoyed going there for an hour or two just to browse the shelves. Being able to buy cheaper also means that I felt able to take a risk on something I might not otherwise have bothered with, and investigate other genres or writers I'd never come across before. It was fairly compendious too, stocking everything from fiction to reference books on everything from art and design to history.

The note on the door seemed to suggest the shop's seizure was due to unpaid rent, and I've got to admit, if there's precious little money in books, there's even less in second hand ones, and hardly enough to satisfy the ambitious, or ultimately the landlords. I always suspect that independent ventures like this, and record shops of course, are often run and worked in by fanatical hobbyists who do it for the love rather than cutting a healthy profit, but if you can't even pay the rent.. well. Game over. Sad really. I really have something of an affection for institutions of great merit but with little financial acumen which soldier on anyway. A bit like Hugh Grant's bookshop in Notting Hill (joke: I haven't actually seen it. The film that is, not the place, obviously).

It got me thinking about London, and how, while I love the city, one of the things I really dislike about it is the price of rent. Not so much personally as that's pretty reasonable, but in terms of the ludicrous value of property in general, which motivates the landed to some fairly greedy profiteering.

The business of buying and renting property these days often strikes me as a fairly sordid area of business, what with everyone being either obsessed with pursuing property or thrashing round in the ensuing money-pit, and this extends from the guy you rent your bedsit from to the corporate behemoth that leases office space in Canary Wharf. Let's face it. No-one's a landlord out of charity, and even the good ones generally have something of a shall we say, laissez faire attitude toward upkeep.

Astronomical rent ultimately ultimately prices out the small guy or the independent trader, as it eats into their modest income. There used to be a pretty good comic shop on the Charing Cross Road, which shut down last year. On the day of its closing, I overheard the owner talking to a customer and telling him (almost inevitably a him in a comic shop) that the landord had suddenly hiked the yearly rent from a pretty damn expensive £60K to a jaw-dropping £100,000 per annum. A sum that seems not so much astronomical to me as interstellar.

As his customer observed "how many comic books would you have to sell to pay that?" and the proprietor stated that he was reluctantly migrating his business online. It sounds to me like the landlord heard somewhere of a similar property going for as much, and appetite well and truly whetted endevoured to stoke the fires of their greed with bales of the crisp folding stuff.

I quite often walk past that same shop, and it seems now to be full of crappy plastic umbrellas. I can only assume that they're the landord's own, as I can't see how they're going to pay the rent. So.. a tenant gone, a property vacant, and London slightly less interesting for it. I've seen it happen to a few places over the last year or so, and I can't really see the situation improving.

I also noted with dismay that both the Astoria and Hammersmith Palais are closing shortly, and while I must admit I've only ever been to one of those venues, I'm aggrieved in principle to venues such as this shutting down in the name of some bland homogenous progress. These are outlets for the music that gives London such a vibrant night-life, and once they're gone, they're gone.

There was quite an interesting piece in the Guardian last year—penned by Banksy—which cited the negative effects of the Melbourne games on the thriving street art scene there, before in turn positing that much the same might happen in East London when the Olympics arrive in 2012. Pessimistic or not (and I'm only so bothered about 'street' art), I agreed with some of its points. Too often these days the landscape of our cities is dictated by corporations which flatten all before them in their quest for monopoly, by buying up space to hedge out the competition.

Ultimately this would leave us with the same lineup of poe-faced brands—whose hegemony is already apparent crowding our public space in ever more intrusive ways. I don't necessarily mind places like Starbucks (they have their place) but when their nitrous runoff stagnates and chokes the city of its diversity, then I'm pissed. Yeah, let's have your shop with its extravagantly priced infusions derived from beans you paid someone in the third world fuck all for, but let's have some greasy spoons too, some Italian caffs, some local flavour.

Ultimately of course, oversaturation could be their downfall. Globalisation makes for a handy catch all term here, though I personally find the slow annexing of britain by supermarkets the most obviously irritating thing (sometimes it feels like I'm being slowly surrounded by Tesco Metros). People are already somewhat desensitized to the hi-gloss of advertising, which is why all too often these days, big business strives for ever more resourceful means to displace its mass, through viral incursions schemed to slip beneath the radar of credibility. As consumers become ever sophisticated, the more advertising strives to camouflage itself as 'street-buzz' or word of mouth, using the slang and tropes of oral and visual youth culture. This can pay dividends but also backfire disasterously, as was evidenced by the 'blog' Sony set up to promote the new PSP last year. As fast moving consumer groups mover ever faster, the tone of such campaigns must become ever more nuanced if it is to keep up without being outed, though it is highly, highly amusing to see them cock up, poor dears.

It is quite ironic that big business appropriates the cultural capital of subcultures, while at the same time marginalising them, but nothing new. I just hope that after the Olympics come and go, there is still affordable rent for the starving artists to keep on starving up east, and more generally, bits of London are allowed to persist as areas fertile for interaction, excitement and creativity, regardless of whether they are covered in spray paint or you can purchase a skinny venti latte there..

Anyway. I've ranted about this before and I am positive, but in the short term, where can I buy a cheap book? Tlon, I'm gonna miss ya.


:: stopsatgreen :: said...

Very good post.

You do have to wonder at the greed which drives landlords to push rents up while high street businesses are in competition with online.

Wordsworth books is a good example; rather than cut an incumbent tenant some slack, the landlord forced them out. That same unit has sat empty for a year since then - and no wonder, as the rent is a staggering £70k. If he'd halved the rent, he could have had £35k going in the bank over the last year; instead, he has nothing.

That's why I think it's vital that people support their local indies, and make a stand against the generics. Yes, it might cost you more; but the payoff is that you get businesses which know their customers and treat them like people.

sigh9 said...

yes - very good post, eyechild

can I point out the existence of the library just down the road from you? Had a pretty good selection of graphic novels once upon a time. More importantly - access to the whole Lambeth Library catalogue. You might even be able to browse and request your reads online to be picked up from the library at your convenience. (you can in Wandsworth anyway).

The Eyechild said...

@ Stopsatgreen

Yeah you do have to wonder..

As with the example of Wordsworth, it's a weirdly self defeating dogma too, if it means you actually end up out of pocket..

@ Sigh9

You're right.. Peckham library has an excellent selection of novels, both graphic and otherwise, and I think you can drop off at Camberwell library. No excuse for not getting involved really..

Roana said...

I remember when "Tlon books" was "My Back Pages" (we're talking about 15 years ago, now). It used to be even more crammed with second hand books (erm, mostly ones I had sold to them) and it used to have the most fantastic record section at the back. Cor, I found so many gems in there (not least the Back to the Future soundtrack)!

The next closet bookshop may be:
Chener Books Ltd
14, Lordship Lane, London, SE22 8HN
Tel: 020 8299 0771

Thanks for the post, I haven't been to Tlon for a while and I wouldn't have found out otherwise. I'm very sorry to see it go.

The Eyechild said...


Records and books! Wow. My idea of heaven.

Cheers for the heads up about the bookshop.. I'll have to check it out..