Winston Churchill, Independent Bookstores and Baltimore’s Ivy Bookshop
by Barry Singer
Winston Churchill only shopped at independent bookstores. There were no chains, of course, in his day and I like think that if there were, he would have disdained them. Churchill first patronized his father’s longtime London bookseller, James Bain, as well as the venerable Messrs. Hatchard (“Booksellers to their Majesties the King and Queen and Queen Mary”) at No. 187 Piccadilly (where the store remains to this day). He also frequented, in no particular order of preference, George Winter, J. Law & Son, Bertram Dobel and E. Joseph – all on Charing Cross Road; George Harding of Great Russell Street, J. Westell and James Roche on New Oxford Street, John & Edward Bumpus on Oxford Street, and the very much still extant Maggs Bros. and Henry Sotheran & Co. when both were in the Strand.
If we bother at all to think about independent bookstores these days, we tend to worry over them in the aggregate as the endangered species that they are. The marvelous thing about independent bookstores, however, is their particularity. Each is a distinct and unique organism. I had the decided pleasure of being concretely reminded of this last week when I was received for a Friday evening Churchill Style event at Baltimore’s Ivy Bookshop. What a terrific bookstore; filled with an iconoclastic inventory, enthusiastic, decidedly opinionated customers, and run with a singular affection for both by owners Ed and Ann Berlin, abetted by their knowledgable, widely-read staff.
Steeped as it is in the traditions that it shares with Churchill’s London booksellers, The Ivy is nevertheless its own creation and entirely a product of its place: Baltimore. Which is just as it should be.
I like Baltimore. It’s a town that retains a very tangy personality, despite the mall-ification of its Inner Harbor. In anticipation of my visit, I did a little a research into Winston Churchill’s own Baltimore history. It, in fact, goes far deeper than one might have expected. In 1900, as a 26-year-old Boer War hero on his first-ever lecture tour of the United States, Churchill spoke at the Baltimore Music Hall, also known as the Lyric Opera House. The size of the crowd disappointed him, “only a few hundred assembled in a hall which could have held 5,000,” he later recalled in his memoir, My Early Life.
In August 1929, after turning in his seals of office as Chancellor of the Exchequer following the defeat of Baldwin’s Conservative administration, Churchill took off on a three-month tour of the United States and Canada—“to see the country and to meet the leaders of its fortunes,” as he wrote to his American friend, the financier Bernard Baruch. He was accompanied by his son, Randolph; his brother, Jack; and Jack’s son, Johnny.
Apparently, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad offered Churchill a private railroad carriage for his trip but Churchill already had been gifted with the use of another “land yacht,” as he called it, the private railroad car of American steel magnate Charles Schwab. So he declined the B&O’s offer.
On February 15, 1932 Churchill returned to Baltimore and the Lyric Opera House as part of another U.S. lecture tour (following a monthlong recuperative postponement caused by his near fatal traffic accident in New York City). The subject of his talk on this ocassion was: “The World Facing Disaster.” Attendance was significantly better the second time around.
Churchill’s final engagement with Baltimore was very brief and rather dangerous. It came at the end of his second wartime visit to meet with FDR in Washington in June 1942. On the evening of June 25, Churchill bid Roosevelt goodbye at the White House, then was driven to Baltimore’s Harbor Field Seaplane Terminal. There, he boarded a Boeing 314 flying boat for the flight home to England. Once onboard, he was informed that among the local plainclothes police officers on duty that evening during his departure, one had been caught fingering his pistol and muttering that he was going to “do Churchill in, with some other expressions of an unappreciative character,” as Churchill later wrote. “He was pounced upon and arrested.”
“Pounced.” Such a delightful word, especially when removed from the shadow of an attempted assassination. Churchill survived his, and independent bookstores like The Ivy Bookshop continue to survive theirs. Pounce on them. Don’t miss your chance.