Words Darren Hawes
Photography Erin Barry
“It’s a strange little shop and always has been… the fact that it exists is kind of wonderful in a world where everything would tell you that this shop has everything going against it.”
I suppose it’s all rather fitting that at the junction of Warren and Fitzroy streets sits a cave of wonders – French’s Theatre Bookshop – not a minute away from Fitzroy square. I went into this establishment to have a look around, as well as chat to its owner/manager what? Peter Langdon
My first impression of the shop comes from before I even enter; black wooden frames catch the eye, drawing my attention towards the mountains of books inside. Of course, this feeling of awe at the sheer size of the shop floor collection does not diminish upon entering; plays stacked by author, theme, teachings and more line the walls (and much of the tables) of this establishment. It isn’t just any old bookshop either, Peter tells me of the things they’re involved in. “We are a publisher, so we publish plays, we also represent the rights to plays, so if anyone wants to perform the play we sell the license to perform it on behalf of the author, then collect the money and supply it to the author. And we also have the shop which has been around for a long time.” In fact, French’s was involved in the recent production of Elephant Man at the West-End, starring Bradley Cooper in the titular role.
As Peter goes on to tell me, “People are a bit unclear as to when the shop actually started, but it was in the early 19th Century. The company started in 1830, so we’ve got our 185th anniversary this year.” The location of the shop has changed throughout the centuries, but I learn that its current incarnation has been in Fitzrovia since the 1980s, and before that Covent Garden. Peter tells me about the effect this change of location has had on the bookshop. “When we were in Covent Garden it was more in the heart of theatre land, but we do have theatres here as well. And we’re not so far from the West-End. So really, if you are in London and interested in theatre we’re very close by.” On top of the location, French’s has expanded outside of the physical world, “We also have a website which offers our entire range online.” Peter lets me know that he thinks this makes them “probably one of the biggest theatre bookshops online now too!”
This specialism Peter talks about can be seen easily in the shop, and the people who work here are always willing to help, “We have people in the shop who just know theatre inside out,” he tells me. “If there was a production in 1962, you want to find out about it, we’ve probably heard of it and can find it for you.” This wealth of knowledge is not confined to those who know what they want either: “our specialism is quite broad… Simon the manager, who’s been with us for thirty…ish years, has in his time come across almost anything. It would be great if we could get people who don’t normally read plays to do it. You wouldn’t think to get a play and just sit down and read… but some plays – not all but some – are just fascinating to see on the page.” French’s is beginning to expand outside of simple bookselling too, “We are starting to do more events in the shop. Book launches and talks in the evening, always on weekday evenings. As well as external events and workshops: we’ve done one of these workshops on how to audition in May with 250 people.” Whether you’re just passing, or really need something in relation to theatre, French’s can and will provide.
As well as current offerings, Peter lets me know that “there’s quite a lot of things we want to start doing, and we definitely want to find more people and bring them into the shop. Make it more of a shop that local people feel they can use and pop in to find a really interesting work.” The atmosphere in the shop allows for discovery. “You can come in some days and see a group of people all sat around a table reading. It’s not always possible to like the book but we want to offer a place where people can think and just try out new things, whatever their reason.”
During the long history of French’s Theatre Bookshop business hasn’t stopped, and Peter proudly tells me about how they’ve kept the place at the centre of not just the theatre industry, but literature on the whole. “It’s what makes us different, I mean it’s a strange little shop and always has been, it’s a highly particular market, but I think the fact it exists is kind of wonderful in a world where everything would tell you that this shop has everything going against it. But our sales are up on last year, and we really want to make sure we’re as useful as possible for people. We don’t want to get stuck in the past and we’re aware of the different needs people have now.” Seemingly a bookshop is no longer just a bookshop, it’s a place where you can meet people, where you can go have events. It’s a place of discovery now. Whereas, for example, the online world is a place for what you want and what you already know.
Finally, along with its long history and many guises, there is something special, almost ethereal about the Samuel French brand. “Quite a lot of people get really excited when they get their first Samuel French publication through. They say that when they were a kid they always had a Samuel French book on their shelf. So it becomes really exciting when we accept a play from one of these people and they become a part of it too.”