Celebrating 40 years of the South Bank Book Market

Several people look at the books on offer on a large table, part of the South Bank Book Market
South Bank Book Market, Pete Woodhead

In a city which is constantly changing and evolving, with cranes a permanent fixture on the skyline, it’s reassuring to know some things never change.

One of those steady, comforting London presences is the South Bank Book Market which celebrates its 40th birthday on 2 July. The man behind this much-loved fixture under Waterloo Bridge was Leslie Hardcastle, the then Controller of the BFI, who wanted to bring some life to the space in front of the BFI’s National Film Theatre. With great encouragement from the film writer Jerome ‘Jerry’ Epstein – who would hold one of the original stalls – Hardcastle arranged for the construction of a number of storage units for books and tables, and invited applications from booksellers to occupy the stalls.

The early years were often hard going, the South Bank was a less welcoming environment in the 1980s than it is today. But thanks to the commitment and entrepreneurial spirit of the initial stall holders – many of whom subsidised their South Bank location through other stalls elsewhere, or by arranging additional ad-hoc sales points in the foyers of the nearby cultural buildings – the market continued and has consolidated its position by the river for four decades, coming under the umbrella of the Southbank Centre in 2001. 

Richard Smith has been involved with the South Bank Book Market since its inception in 1983. He is one of two stall holders – the other being Clive Drewitt who occupies the adjacent stall – to have been ever present at the market throughout its 40 years on the South Bank. It’s a remarkable achievement, but not something even he envisaged.

‘I just thought it was going to be a temporary thing. I was actually training to be a solicitor with a high level firm of solicitors, but I failed to pass the exams. They said they’d never had anyone fail, but asked me to come back again in six months so I needed to earn some money somehow. I heard through a friend about the market opening, so I came down and I think I got the next to last stall.’

To swap the law for standing beneath Waterloo Bridge may seem like a wild departure, but for Richard it was a more logical path to follow than first appears. ‘I had a lot of experience with books because my father was a book collector. When he died he left me about 10,000 books. Ever since I was a teenager I’d always been interested in print, particularly in printing methods and history of printing. So I guess it was a fairly natural thing to fall into’.

I just thought it was going to be a temporary thing’

Richard Smith, South Bank Book Market stall holder since 1983

Though the cityscape around the South Bank Book Market has seen significant changes in its four decades, the market itself is much as it ever was; a testament to if it aint broke why try and fix it? In fact Richard and Clive aren’t the only regular fixtures here to have stood the test of time. ‘The boxes under the bridge are the original ones. And they've survived remarkably well. They really built them well. We had a couple of replacements built and they've sort of fallen apart before the originals’.

But given so much has changed, on the South Bank and across London, in its 40 years, has the Book Market ever come close to relinquishing its popular patch? ‘There were periods under an earlier regime where we got the strong impression they wanted to get rid of us, that they’d rather open a cafe here or something. But we managed to resist the pressure – we sort of had squatters rights on the area – and I think they would have had a fight on their hands if they’d wanted to shift us’.

Thankfully such a move never came to fruition and so the market has become embedded in its surroundings in more ways than one; the only notable addition since its formation being the distinctive blue mosaic sign, which has been affixed to the railings of Queen’s Walk for the last couple of decades. The sign was produced by Southwark Mosaics – now known as the London School of Mosaic – who’re based at St John’s Church opposite Waterloo station. The mosaic is just one part of a link between the iconic church and the Book Market as for many years Richard rented a part of the vicarage at St Paul’s as storage.

And as a marker of how much of an established fixture of London the Book Market has become, it’s even made it onto the big screen. You’ll spot it in the background as Hugh Grant chases Andie MacDowell to tell her that he thinks he loves her, sort of, maybe, in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and it was also visited by Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson in Last Chance Harvey. And it continues to draw film-makers and videographers year on year. ‘Smaller film units frequently seek permission to use the book stalls as a location or backdrop. In general they’re welcomed by the booksellers, though if they overstay their allotted time too long, or impede the vital function of bookselling too much, then they’re liable to summary ejection’.

A number of people stand around the tables of the South Bank Book Market under Waterloo Bridge; it is a bright day but the market is in shadow
South Bank Book Market, Pete Woodhead

The last 40 years have seen Richard holding other stalls around the city – variously at Covent Garden, Portobello Road, Piccadilly and Green Park – but the South Bank Book Market has always been his focus, even as what’s on his stall, and those around him, has evolved. ‘It's extremely difficult to make a living out of selling books by themselves. Maps and prints are much more high value, so you can have a much bigger turnover, so that’s what I specialise in now, antiquarian maps and prints and I do sell a few antiquarian books too. I sell a lot of prints, in fact I probably sell more prints of places overseas than I do of British locations, and I specialise more in foreign maps too’.

‘When the market started, we had a few people who really knew their stuff when it came to antiquarian books, so we used to sell a lot of 17th, 18th and 19th century stuff, but that's rather disappeared now. I sell a few but the Market these days is largely dedicated to modern books, anything from philosophy, history and classic literature to books for children of all ages, as well as records and modern prints’.

And as the stalls have changed, so too have the faces behind them. ‘Beyond Clive and me, Londinium Books is still going. It was originally run by a couple called Jean and Eric, but they’ve retired and the family has taken over, so it’s still the same stall in effect, but most of the others have changed hands. As stall holders we all get on well, although some of us have our little foibles’.

‘It’s amazing the number of different nationalities that visit. In a way it’s a microcosm of the whole of London.’

It may seem an idyllic existence, selling books by the river, but as Richard points out, it can be quite slow going. ‘You can have very slow periods and it can be quite boring. But at the same time it's not easy to sit down and read, because if you do people come and interrupt you. I usually get there at 8.30am, set up by about 9.30am. Have coffee. Sit around. Have some more coffee. There's usually a few buyers in the morning. And then there's usually a quiet period around lunchtime and then trade builds up into the evening. Sometimes you do want to go home at about 5pm or 5.30pm, but you can't as there's people around at this time’. 

And then there’s the weather, ‘It gets extremely cold during the winter and even when it’s very sunny outside it can be very cold under the bridge. It doesn’t affect trade but you have to dress up warm as you’re hanging around for so long. And because of the way the bridge draws the wind through, if it’s raining, even just a slight rain, it makes it very difficult to open. We've got covers, but if it's raining all day it’s very difficult.’ And aside from the slow trade and the weather, are there any other challenges? ‘I've been threatened. Hit over the head with an iron bar on one occasion,’ Richard says with a surprising nonchalance, adding ‘It is supposed to be a market so you expect a few of these things, but it’s fairly quiet these days thankfully.’

But then, like most jobs, it’s the people you meet that make a difference, and Richard is particularly enthusiastic when talking about his customers. ‘We've got a lot of regulars, but also a lot of tourists. It’s amazing the number of different nationalities that visit. In a way it’s a microcosm of the whole of London – these days perhaps a better place than Leicester Square to meet everyone you know. Our only problem is we don’t sell enough foreign language books as they aren’t necessarily easy to come by’.

‘I've been threatened. Hit over the head with an iron bar on one occasion, but it is supposed to be a market so you expect a few of these things.’

‘And there are people who visit the country and every time they’re over they come to the Book Market. Just the other weekend I sold some items to a man who lives in Singapore. He comes here every few months on business, and he’ll next be here in October. As he left he said ‘I’ll see you then if you’ve something that might interest me.’ And that’s a really nice part of it, making contacts and connections with a lot of interesting people’.

For all the challenges, and the occasional bouts of tedium, that working outside all year round presents, it’s clear that Richard, and no doubt his fellow stall holders too, wouldn’t swap theirs for any other job. ‘The best thing about it is the freedom really, just the freedom of it. You never know who you’re going to meet whilst you’re there, or what kind of conversations you’re going to have. Also, frankly, I don’t think most of us would be capable of working anywhere else.’


Several people look at the books on offer on a large table, part of the South Bank Book Market
South Bank Book Market, Pete Woodhead
South Bank Book Market

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