Hatchards is London’s oldest bookshop. It was founded by John Hatchard in 1797 and swiftly became a thriving literary hub and beloved institution. John Hatchard's bookselling career had begun with an apprenticeship at Mr Ginger’s bookshop near Westminster Abbey and a period working at Mr Thomas Payne’s bookshop in the same area. Eventually Hatchard took over Mr White’s bookshop, 173 Piccadilly, which became known as Hatchards. Its location on the south side of Piccadilly was something of a book district in the latter half of the eighteenth century, with many booksellers and publishers trading there. Situated in the wealthy West End, the shop attracted an esteemed, aristocratic clientele and Sydney Smith writing in the Edinburgh Review in 1810 describes Hatchards visitors as ‘a set of well-dressed, prosperous gentlemen, assembling daily at the shop well in with the people in power’ (p. 326; see Kevin Gilmartin, p. 93). As well as royalty (Hatchards holds three royal warrants), several famous political figures were regular customers, including Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill. Hatchards first publication was a political pamphlet, ‘Reform or Ruin: Take Your Choice’, demonstrating the establishment as a place of societal, political and religious discussion. Indeed, John Hatchard’s ‘Low-Church views’ brought many religious authors to his door. He also published the Christian Observer, an evangelical periodical, from the first issue in 1802 to 1845, when he retired from business.
Unsurprisingly, the shop was a literary hub, attracting a host of names that are among the best known in English Literature: Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Rudyard Kipling and Jane Austen, to name a few. Oscar Wilde so frequently signed his books there that the main table on the ground floor is still referred to as ‘Oscar’s table’. Letters from 1897 show that Wilde’s wife Constance, who was living abroad with their children following Wilde’s arrest, was friends with Hatchards manager Arthur Humphreys. Humphreys provided her with news from Britain and even sent her copies of Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’. It is clear from such connections that Hatchards established itself at the heart of the literary world. Indeed, Hatchards is immortalised by Virginia Woolf when Clarissa Dalloway journeys through Piccadilly:
'She stood for a moment, looking at the omnibuses in Piccadilly... She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone...But what was she dreaming as she looked into Hatchards' shop window?... Ever so many books there were; but none that seemed exactly right to take to Evelyn Whitbread in her nursing home. (Mrs Dalloway, pp. 6-7)
Woolf’s mention affirms Hatchards position in a bustling modern London and reveals it to be a landmark of the commercial city in the twentieth century. Hatchards longevity has, in turn, seen it into the twenty first century too and to this day it trades from the building it has occupied for over two centuries (it moved from 173 Piccadilly to 189-190 Piccadilly in 1801, which became 187 when the area was renumbered in 1820. It was acquired by William Collins, Sons in 1956, then Pentos in 1990, and Pentos was later acquired by Waterstones, the current owner. In 2014 Hatchards opened a second store, also in London. A unit had become available in St. Pancras International next to Fortnum and Mason, enabling a traditional symmetry of sorts - the two British institutions are neighbours in Piccadilly and continue to be neighbours in the second location.