where the writers are
My first bookshop love affair

I first came across Arthur Probsthain, Oriental & African bookseller, in 1986. I was in London to visit the British Museum for the first time, and I was sixteen years old. It was a rainy day - somehow London always seems more Londony when it rains - and my heart gave a little flutter when I first spotted the bookshop's hanging sign. I was obsessed with Japanese prints, but no local bookstores stocked books on the subject, and it was back before the Internet took hold of us and provided the opportunity to buy the rarest of books from far-off places at the click of a mouse button. A small shop, with two rooms filled with dusty second-hand and new tomes, I stayed in there for what seemed like an age. And although I wasn't made of money, being a student at the time, I spent all of £20... which was two weeks' allowance. I couldn't wait to go back. And I did so, countless times.

In the winter of 1988, I sat in Jack Hillier's study and wrote down a list of reference books as he suggested appropriate titles to aid in my research. One book went to the top of my list... a Dictionary of Japanese (Sosho) Writing Forms, by Otome Daniels, published in 1942. About a month later, Ryoma and I headed into central London for the book hunt. The chances of finding the dictionary were slim. We were staying over by Holland Park, so we looked in every bookshop we encountered along the way as we headed closer and closer to the British Museum, including the shelves of the shops along Charing Cross Road. Finally, we arrived at Arthur Probsthain's. We searched the selection of dictionaries... nothing. Then we searched every shelf in both rooms, just in case a copy lived there but had been put back in the wrong place... still nothing. We searched the stacks of books that stood on the floor and table in front of the shelves, amongst volumes that looked as if they hadn't been disturbed for decades... still nothing. Then, just as I'd given up all hope of success, Ryoma began rummaging amongst a pile of books and knocked them over. They tumbled to the side of the nearby bookcase, and as Ryoma bent forward to pick them up, knocking a few more over in the process, he glanced behind one of the shelves of books...into the dark recesses where only spiders had ventured since before I was born, and there it was... covered in green dust. Yes, green! I blew at it, sending a cloud of the stuff up into the air and up Ryoma's nose. I may have eeped with joy a few (or ten) times. My dictionary... I was convinced it had been waiting there for me all along.

I'd been fond of the shop since I first came across it, on that rainy afternoon when I was killing time after looking at Japanese prints at the British Museum. But as my eyes fell upon that dusty dictionary... well, I fell in love with the place.

I loved the way the shop smelled, the way it looked, the sound of the creaky floorboards... everything about it... especially on rainy days, because book hunting is so much more fun when it's raining. There's something about the smell of old paper and wet raincoats mixing together. It's been refurbished since then, so the green dust has gone forever. It's very clean and organised now. I miss those old shelves, sagging under the weight of those old books. I miss the dust-filled air. And I think that I will always miss the possibility that I'll find a long-forgotten treasure, for £6.50, slightly green, most certainly foxed, but for me very desirable indeed.