Richard Smith has been selling books underneath Waterloo Bridge for almost forty years. Here he reveals the origins of the popular Southbank Centre Book Market and observes how the literary tastes of its customers have changed over the decades. The Illuminated River artwork on Waterloo Bridge, Richard believes, will brighten the spirits of those visiting during winter months.
The 'South Bank Book Market' opened on 2nd July 1983, in its present location directly beneath the south arch of Waterloo Bridge – in those days, a desolate and lonely place, relying for illumination largely on a row of incandescent bulbs strung between a few collapsing poles next to the River. It was the brainchild of two friends – Leslie Hardcastle, the then Controller of the British Film Institute, and Jerome (Jerry) Epstein, the film writer and producer, who had also been friends with Charlie Chaplin, and had worked with him on his last film, A Countess from Hong Kong. Inspired by the Paris bouquinistes selling second-hand books along the Seine, Leslie arranged for the construction of ten solid timber custom-made storage and display boxes, and a couple of storage boxes. It’s a tribute to the quality of these units that most survive in serviceable condition today. They were to be financed by the booksellers over a period of years by way of a small monthly payment.
The stalls were distributed on a first come, first served basis, and were quickly snapped up by a handful of established booksellers, supplemented by a few layabouts with nothing better to do - of which I was one - and, of course, Jerry himself, (whom I hesitate to include in that latter category). We were all full of enthusiasm and excitement, which soon evaporated in the reality of standing about for hours on end watching the occasional lost tourist wandering by. The South Bank was a different country in those early days, populated mostly by bored pigeons and hungry seagulls. Those of us not fortunate enough to work other venues quickly developed entrepreneurial skills as a matter of necessity, branching out into other London markets and theatre foyers, and ‘running’ books – that is, buying from one dealer and selling to another. In the absence of the internet, this occupation, given a good eye and a willingness to get up at four in the morning to trawl the markets at Bermondsey, Covent Garden, Portobello Road, and, of course, Farringdon Road, became a valuable sideline. And it had the added advantage that it required dealing in the rarer and more interesting items that would largely have lain unappreciated on our bookstalls.
One of the memories I have of those early days in the Market – I wouldn’t say I treasure it – is of the whole crew of us standing in the half dark, hunched up against the cold and the stray flakes of snow creeping under the bridge, and huddled round a large bag of greasy chips, which I believe we had to club together to buy.
Of course, things slowly improved. Through sheer perseverance we started to become known, first, amongst that most vital band of customers, then already ageing and now largely extinct, the collectors of curious, scarce, or obscure antiquarian volumes. They were one of our most valuable, and certainly our most reliable, sources of revenue. They would arrive with predictable regularity, well insulated against the cold, clutching large carrier bags or sometimes trailing wheelie-baskets. When they were still active, our stock was much more interesting than it is today. That may not be a remark endorsed by all the current members, but I myself belong to and empathise with that earlier generation. Today, the Market caters much more to contemporary interests and tastes, and partly because of that, and partly due to the massive increase in visitors, it can be, on those occasional days when it is not raining, or blowing a gale, or freezing, or any combination of the three, a much busier and more thriving place. Since 2001 it has come under the umbrella of the South Bank, now Southbank Centre Limited.
Our main concern with the weather is not for our own sakes, but for the protection of the stock. The South Bank is one of the windiest, as well as the coldest, parts of London, especially when the tide is high. When the temperature beyond the arch is thirty or more, and the air is still, the Book Market is the most pleasant place to be. But the wind has been known, not merely to overturn tables heavy with books, but to pick them up, carry them over the heads of the passers-by, and deposit them in the nearest convenient puddle. And when an unexpected gust arrives, accompanied by rain, hail or snow, the result is liable to make any lover of books, let alone their proprietor, wince.
For the proprietors, meeting visitors of such disparate social backgrounds and origins, and having an atmosphere of relaxed informality in which to converse with them, is perhaps the most rewarding part of the job. And quite revealing. We often experience charm and gratitude, and sometimes, thankfully rarely, ignorance and rudeness. Sometimes we are offered tips, sometimes forced to haggle with some passing millionaire over a three-pound paperback. And we are, of course, well-acquainted with the local rough sleepers, who have been known to avail themselves of the protection afforded by the spaces behind our stalls.
We view the Illuminated River project with anticipation and excitement – a languid cascade, not only of light, but of colour, which will transform the gloomy spaces we have been used to, and elevate the mood and interest of all our visitors. We have already profited from the replacement of the old floodlights on which we relied during the winter by banks of modern LEDs, for which act of gratuitous kindness we are most grateful. We look forward to the continuing progress of the whole project.
The book market is open every day from 10am until 7pm.
As well as replacing the old floodlights underneath the south arch of Waterloo Bridge with energy efficient LEDs, Illuminated River have developed a special app to allow the booksellers and the BFI to control the light levels depending on their needs at different times of the evening.
Illuminated River artist Leo Villareal will be adding a light artwork to Waterloo Bridge in Spring 2021.The artwork will incorporate a line of colour that shifts and blends across the bridge, adjusting to the constantly changing riverscape. The sculptural surfaces of the bridge’s undercrofts will also be emphasised for the first time in soft washes of coloured light. Read more about the proposed artwork here.