In the heart of Mayfair, Shapero Rare Books is full of treasures. From John Gould to Beatrix Potter, from Piranesi to Ian Fleming, the shop abounds in beautifully illustrated works and gems of literature. Here, we invite you to explore the ground floor and some of the rare books you can find on its shelves.
It is a universal truth: the quiet of an unknown shop, into which you've not once before set foot, will intimidate beyond reason. I know I hate walking into a new place where the staff will – I imagine – be staring at me while I look around with lost eyes. I'll gaze, gormlessly, struggling to process the intricacies of the display and the sheer depth of the stock, before deciding which shelves to first explore. For a moment there exists a certain pressure (a self-conjured pressure, but pressure none the less) that one must will out of mind before taking true note of one’s surroundings.
Shapero is this kind of shop; and yet for all its eminence it is the most encouraging and friendly place to visit, even if the doorway is blocked by the snoozing resident terrier, Bones. Whether or not to wake Bones is a far more genuine source of pressure than the potential judgements of the staff within.
When stepping into the main room, it is hard not to notice the large shelf in front of you, covered in a display of generally massive books opened to a colourful illustration. Birds, flowers, architecture and children's illustrations, all kinds of different styles mix on these shelves.
In the same process as that which keeps you from entering a hitherto unknown place, your brain - or maybe is it just mine? - might make you think you can't touch, let alone open the books. Obviously, you can. That's what they're for. There's even a cushion to put the largest books on. How fancy.
The first time I walked in, I was completely amazed by such a display. My personal library does contain some old books, and a relatively large amount of written works in total, but looking at Shapero's collection was like driving a Bugatti Royale after a lifetime in Noddy's car.
And YET, I realised even Noddy would be able to find something to his taste.
The very excentric and controversial Burton was the first English Christian to enter Mecca freely as a true Mohammedan pilgrim (travelling in disguise as an Afghan Pathan) and the first European to travel between the Holy Cities by the eastern route. He spent a month at Medina before going on to Mecca where he performed all the rituals of the Hajj. The three volumes contain beautiful illustrations of the inhabitants and buildings of the places Burton he visited on his journey.
The marvellous work of display is done by Angus, so I HAVE to mention his favourite work in the shelves: the Vedute di Rome by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1778-1785). In all simplicity - and modesty, obviously - it is the finest illustrated book on Rome, and one of the very greatest series of engravings on any subject.
They are, indeed, pretty amazing. Rome is already one of the most beautiful cities in the world - THE most beautiful, some would say - but seen through Piranesi's eyes, it becomes even more mythical. And to such an extent that Goethe, who had come to know Rome through Piranesi's prints, was somewhat disappointed on his first encounter with the real thing.
So here you are, still standing in front of theses shelves after hours - at least - of contemplation of all those beautiful open books. You might think it's time to move a bit, your legs are starting to be restless. So you turn right and there, what do you see? MORE BOOKS. Exactly.
On your way back to the entrance, this is what you'll eventually see: the stairs to go to the 1st floor, or those to go to Shapero Modern in the basement - these are your only two options, since leaving the shop is absolutely out of the question. If you really want to leave, here is a little something to make you stay: you can have a cup of tea or coffee for free at Shapero...