The Independent London Newspaper

Letters

US film producer supplies the magic to save occult bookshop

White knight: Producer and gallery owner Etan Ilfeld

Published: 2 April 2010
by ALISTAIR KLEEBAUER

A 113-YEAR-old occult bookshop which was close to extinction has been saved by a friendly neighbour.

Watkins Books, the oldest esoteric bookshop in London, has been trading since 1897, but was forced to close on February 23 after being placed in administration.

Luckily Etan Ilfeld, who owns two galleries opposite the shop in Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road, was on hand to buy the business.

“It was a great cause to save it and I want it to survive another century,” said Mr Ilfeld, 32, of Dean Street.

“I’m living and breathing Cecil Court at the moment.” 

Few other bookshops could cover subjects as diverse as eastern philosophies and conspiracy theories and stock books including The Living Temple of Witchcraft and Drawing Down The Spirits.

But Mr Ilfeld, an American film producer who moved to London in 2007, had to beat off a number of rival bidders, including one who intended to turn the bookshop into an online-only business.

The shop was able to reopen on March 13 to a surprised public, with two customers bringing bottles of champagne to celebrate.

“It was shock and relief rolled into one,” said shop manager Ricky James, 54.

Original owner John Watkins reviewed occult books and was urged to start the shop by Russian mystic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who founded her own doctrine of theosophy, a forerunner of the philosophy behind Steiner schools.

When John died in 1947 the shop passed to his son Geoffrey and visitors have included famous English occultist Aleister Crowley and poet William Butler Yeats.

“I wasn’t sure about it at first, it’s a huge responsibility,” said Mr Ilfeld.

“It was very touch and go as to whether it would survive.”

The collapse of the Net Book Agreement, which forced booksellers to stick to retail prices, along with the growth of online shops like Amazon took its toll on Watkins.

But with plans to grow their own web presence, including YouTube videos, and to expand their stock to include subjects such as UFOs, Mr Ilfeld was hopeful about its future.

“People know they will get a quality experience when they come to the shop,” he said.

If it is still open in another 100 years, he will have been proven right.

Tim Bryers, 36, owner of his own antique map and book shop at 8 Cecil Court was delighted by the news, especially as he also runs the Court’s traders association. 

“It was a big worry for us partly because of the historical association which no one wants to lose but also because we don’t want to have a range of empty units,” he said.

He also revealed that the original Foyles bookshop had opened in Cecil Court in 1904 and that John Watkins had lent the Foyles brothers money to pay their staff. 

Perhaps its time to call in a favour.

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