History of Watkins
Over a century ago, Watkins, the “University of Rejected Sciences”, was born. In March 1893, John M. Watkins issued the first second-hand and remaindered book catalogue in his own name, giving 26 Charing Cross in the centre of London as his business address. He eventually moved the business to its present famous site at No.21 in Cecil Court in 1901. Two frequent visitors in those very early days were the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, himself a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and G.R.S. Mead, author of numerous works on gnosticism and a prominent figure in the Theosophical Society.
The late 19th century was a time of vigorous questioning of long-held beliefs about the nature of man, his origins and his destiny as well as of the universe, which he inhabited. All these developments were to have a considerable impact on the thinking of many intellectuals preoccupied with spiritual and metaphysical questions. Amidst this intellectual upheaval there arose several organisations putting forward alternative views of man and his spiritual nature. There was an upsurge of interest in the hermetic and kabbalistic traditions, an impulse that lay behind the formation of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Additionally the new interest in the spiritual and metaphysical culture of Asia was to find an outlet in the founding of H.P. Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society in America, Britain and India.
John Watkins was a friend and disciple of H P. Blavatsky and was himself personally involved in seeing the first edition of The Secret Doctrine, her great metaphysical classic, through his printing press. The ideal of founding the bookshop is said to have occurred to Mr Watkins in a conversation with Madame Blavatsky in which she lamented the fact that there was nowhere in London one could buy books on mysticism, occultism and metaphysics.
Watkins was joined by his son Geoffrey in 1919. John M. Watkins died on the 19th August in 1947, venerably aged 85. As a child Geoffrey met many of the leading occult figures of the time; MacGregor Mathers, W.B. Yeats, George Russell, Aleister Crowley, all visited the shop and A.E. Waite was a lifelong friend of Geoffrey Watkins, as were many other occult authors. After the death of his father, Geoffrey acquired the lease to No.19 Cecil Court. Geoffrey continued to run the day-to-day business, a veritable walking encyclopaedia of philosophy, religion, and the paranormal. At this point Stuart and Robinson, wealthy and regular customers associated with the Gurdjieff and Ouspensky movement arrived to help. They bought Geoffrey Watkins out and rejuvenated the shop, but kept him on as a genteel backroom presence to advise the inquisitive customer on hand. They also expanded the publishing wing, and went on to create an Ecology Bookshop in Belgrave Square.
Watkins Books, by the end of the decade of Disco, Watergate, and Trade Union strikes itself started to suffer from the pressures of rapidly soaring rents and rates, not to mention increasing competition, and the two partners found that running the shop was no longer financially viable. Geoffrey died in the early 1980s.
In the Orwellian year of 1984, after Geoffrey’s death, the bookshop was sold to Donald Weiser, the American publisher of oriental and occult books; Henry Suzuki, the manager of the erstwhile Weiser Bookstore in the New York metropolis; and Robert Chris, whose uncle (of the same name) had been a bookseller of 20th century English literature and poetry in Cecil Court since 1934. On the death of Robert Chris Senior, his nephew and his wife Val turned 8 Cecil Court into London’s first bookshop specialising in complementary medicine and healing.
New ownership meant new energy including a complete refurbishment of our premises, opening up the basement and thereby doubling the amount of bookshop space and allowing for a far greater display of stock. Val brought over her business from No. 8 and thus added the “body” constituent to the Watkins “mind and spirit” tradition. They computerised all the internal systems, which was the only way to provide a worldwide database of customers with the kind of service that everyone expects today.
In late 1999 Watkins Books Ltd. once again changed ownership and an ambitious programme of expansion was set in motion. Even today we have recently co-operated with Edge Media TV (now Controversial TV) to bring The Watkins Review to a wider audience. Through televised interviews hosted by the Review’s editor Stephen Gawtry, various authors discuss their books and subject areas. So far these include: Judy Hall, Geoff Stray, Richard Sylvester, Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, Caitlin Matthews, John Matthews, and Juliet Sharman-Burke. The programmes appear regularly on Sky Channel 200 and the schedule can be found at www.edgemediatv.com. The programmes are filmed in the bookshop and are well worth watching.
In March 2010, Watkins Books was saved from administration by entrepreneur Etan Ilfeld. Ilfeld has retained the staff and is passionate about ensuring Watkins Books sustainability in the 21st century. Ilfeld is editor-in-chief of the Watkins Review, and, in October 2010, Ilfeld launched an interactive spiritual map of London: