London's best erotic bookshops
Return to the sauce: Coco de Mer's fine selection of arcane smut
Time Out on the trail of London's vintage smutA venerable old bookshop on Berkeley Square, full of rare leather-bound tomes, is the last place you might expect to be poring over graphic pictures of sex. And yet, during a quiet afternoon in Maggs Bros Rare Books, I am able to flick through a heavy volume of beautifully painted and incredibly saucy nineteenth-century French illustrations. The overriding theme of this quality smut is inter-class sex: the pudgy, ruddy-faced maid fornicating with her master in the kitchens. Some of the more daring drawings even feature a French King (Louis XIII or Charles VI), while other, apparently romantic, pastoral illustrations depicting a soldier and his love provide shock value when you realise exactly which part of his anatomy she’s grasping. While I’m transfixed, a distinguished-looking gent in an expensive coat – a regular customer I’ve overheard referred to as a Lord – glances over my shoulder. ‘Ah, Achille Deveria isn’t it?’ he asks, correctly identifying the artist immediately. The book is worth about £2,000; collecting at the top end of this market is evidently a classy business.
British Library meets bestialityFor those who can’t afford to splash out – no pun intended – the good news is there’s something to suit every pocket, not to mention taste. From a huge collection in our own British Library to a publisher’s selection of once-lost classics from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it’s all out there – whether it’s ‘Miss High Heels’ or ‘The Sexual Criminal’ that tickles your fancy.
Porno pastorals at Maggs Bros
Erotic literature has always been as much about subversion as sex itself. The core of the British Library’s extensive collection of erotic literature was bequeathed by Londoner Henry Spencer Ashbee in 1900. A model of Victorian propriety, on the quiet he was also an avid and obsessive collector (and probably author) of erotic literature and pornography, amassing a collection which ran to thousands of volumes – he even bought a secret apartment in which to house his habit. Its explicit content, including intriguing titles such as ‘The Marchioness’s Amorous Pastimes’ and ‘Miss Bellasis Birched for Thieving’, saw it banished to the British Library’s ‘Private Case Collection’ (a repository for controversial material not available to the public), while duplicates were burned (with the permission of Ashbee’s family) as a library spokesperson says today, ‘to spare people’s blushes if anything fell into the wrong hands’. The Private Case Collection was dispersed in the late 1980s and 90s, when the need to suppress ‘sensitive’ material had gone. ‘Now you would just search the main catalogue by a specific subject, because erotic literature is a very wide topic,’ the spokesperson says. ‘So you might put in “bestiality” for instance.’
‘Comings and goings of life’Over at Trinity College, Oxford, things remain a little more prudish. In a back room of the library is a fascinating collection of sixteenth-century erotica bequeathed by a former member of the college. But here it’s strictly for research purposes, not for pleasure (of any kind). Simon Finch Rare Books is where you’ll find another fine collection, of more than 300 books, albums and illustrations. Rare, covetable highlights include a first edition of ‘Justine’ (probably worth over £20,000), by the man who gave us the word ‘sadism’, the Marquis de Sade. Finch started collecting decades ago: ‘I bought a lot of books from Blackwell in Oxford because, as a respectable bookseller, it couldn’t be seen to be handling that kind of thing’. Oliver Wood, who works at the shop, points out how wide-ranging the collection is. Finch’s finds run from the sexually pleasurable to the medical (a vividly illustrated account of syphilis’ physical symptoms) and the psychoanalytical (dramatic illustrations coming out of Weimar Germany). Finch has a long-held ambition to write a book on the myriad connections between sex and death. ‘The comings and goings of life,’ he says drily.
As bought by Brad PittFinch has also helped evolve and develop erotic boutique Coco de Mer’s book selection. Alongside the spanking paddles and feather ticklers in the Monmouth Street shop, you’ll find an antique cabinet crammed with erotic literature. Brad Pitt has been a customer (although apparently he avoided the juicy purchase we might have hoped for, in favour of a book about pornography prohibition). The books sell extremely well and the selection is accessible but diverse, ranging from the classic ‘Story of O’ by Pauline Reage (£7.99) to the bestselling ‘Cunt Colouring Book’ (£6.99). For those willing to spend an awful lot of money, there is an exquisitely bound first edition of ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ (£12,500).
Flogging journals at Maggs Bros
Agent Provocateur has also profited from a foray into erotic literature, producing its own collections of contemporary erotic tales which feature, among other bedroom adventures, a little light S&M and lesbian experimentation, concealed in coy pink and black covers (£10). It seems that city sophisticates who want to indulge in a little stimulation are turning to the written word, rather than porn DVDs or X-rated satellite smut.
Nevertheless it was the advent of video which destroyed Soho’s once-thriving under-the-counter erotic book trade. Michael Goss, author and publisher of London-based Delectus Books, recalls the hastily produced ‘Soho Typescripts’, often run off a roliograph (in the days before photocopiers) and stapled together when such material was still illegal here. ‘It was a highly mobile form of production,’ he says, ‘if you were going to be raided by the police you could just pick it up and take it somewhere else.’ Delectus Books sells a wonderful range of rescued and revived classics, such as Anaïs Nin and Friends’ ‘White Stains’, from the 1940s, and the Edwardian ‘The Mistress and the Slave’, translated from the French (both £19.95).
Carl Williams, of Maggs Bros, is less interested in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French erotica than in the aggressively subversive material of the 1960s. Incongruous in the bookshop’s dignified Georgian townhouse setting, he has amassed many 1960s and ’70s magazines full of ‘fuck tales, contact ads and sexual politics’ which sit incongruously im Maggs Bros’ Georgian townhouse. Titles include The Seed, Idiot International and Berkeley Tribe.
Now that selling erotic literature is no longer a furtive business, there’s a surprising amount of choice on offer, although you have to be quick as it sells fast. These books make for a refreshingly intelligent thrill particularly given that most people’s experience of ‘erotic’ reading is a spam email offering a cut-price penis enlargement. Vintage erotic fiction is worth seeking out: after all, whatever your secret proclivity, erotic prediliction or naughty fantasy, you’ll find that – if you look hard enough – someone, somewhere has written a titillating book about it.
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