WESTMINSTER PEOPLE: Jake Fior, Cecil Court bookseller on Lewis Carroll
'It's the only street that is completely independent'
23 June, 2017 — By Alina Polianskaya
Jake Fior in his shop that holds manuscripts featuring Carroll’s own sketches
From the March Hare to the Hatter, Humpty Dumpty and the Red Queen, the colourful array of characters in the Alice books by Lewis Carroll have long fascinated readers young and old.
Artefacts, memorabilia and plenty of rare books fill the shelves in the Alice Through the Looking Glass shop in Cecil Court, attracting curious passers-by for a little peek.
But why Alice’s enduring popularity?
Jake Fior, who has run the shop since 2012, says: “I think she’s so popular as she is a proto-feminist in terms of children’s literature. She is a strong female character presented with lots of scary and challenging situations, and she isn’t fazed by them. I think it’s actually quite subversive if you view it as a satire on the strictures and formalities of Victorian society.”
Most people remember the first time they discovered Alice’s world, usually warped to some extent, says Jake, and many different groups have embraced the tale through the ages, such as hippies, psychedelic musicians and even fashion designers.
“Alice is a sort of poster girl for drug experimentation. It’s a bit literal that someone takes a potion and has these experiences, distorted perceptions and perspectives, almost hallucinations.”
It all began when Jake, 54, discovered an antique chess board, with images by the original Alice illustrator Sir John Tenniel that sparked the idea. “I bought it not knowing what it was, thinking it was just an interesting Victorian object,” he said. His collection grew and he launched the shop in 2012 – wanting it to be “creative” and “playful”, but not “twee”.
For the past four years, Jake has been rewriting his own version of Alice Though The Looking Glass. “I reread it and found it too sugary and Victorian,” he said. “It’s not a sacred text so I thought I would rewrite the first and last chapters.” It’s a process that he says has been “extraordinary”. He explored the idea of magic within the book, brought in elements of a historic London, and wove influences from poets including WB Yeats and Aleister Crowley into the narrative.
He says: “The cultural climate at the time Through the Looking- Glass (1871) was published pretty much coincided with the second industrial revolution. There was huge and rapid change in technology and ideas and questions that had previously been answered by faith were being challenged by science.
“I think this laid the foundations for a resurgence in interest in Western Mysticism. I can’t say that Carroll was interested in magic but he does seem to have had an interest in the para- normal – for example, whether things like human telepathy were actually possible.”
The book will feature images from another historic find, a new Tenniel sketchbook, with illustrations that have “never been seen”.
Before Alice, Jake – who grew up in Islington – used to run a bookshop and a photography gallery in Exmouth Market. It was during this time he got to know Libertines frontman Pete Docherty – a man he described as both “difficult” and “charming” – and worked with him producing music for some time. Music is another passion of Jake’s, who is a keen bass player.
But the business of rare books has never lost its appeal. “It’s a very informal way to work, you don’t have to wear a suit and the hours are yours to choose.”
For him, it all began with an apprenticeship at the age of 15 with a talented bookseller.
“I found out where the rare auctions are, and went up and down the country with him.”
Contrary to today’s world where smartphones mean information is always at your fingertips, Jake was taught to keep a lot of facts and figures in his head, he says, which can be an advantage.
Speaking of finding rare gems, he says: “People often get into that Antiques Roadshow mentality when they have bought something from a car boot sale for 50p. But the good stuff usually costs thousands of pounds.”
The books in store range from manuscripts featuring Carroll’s own sketches of how he imagined the story, to original work by Tenniel. A metal, engraved ash- tray (and lighter) that were given to the illustrator when he retired from his job at Punch magazine sit proudly in a display cabinet.
The shop is in Cecil Court, a street filled with antique stores, that both hides away and stands out in the buzzing heart of central London.
“I think it is the only street in London that is completely independent,” says Jake. “That is what people like about it.”
Even when he’s at home in Earl’s Court, a little bit of Alice’s world stays with him – a pet white rabbit. “Harley” used to live in the front of the shop in a specially- made hutch, complete with grass and a rabbit hole. “His ears would appear in the window and he would pop up in the morning. He enjoyed it and everybody else loved it too,” Jake says.