The perfect pairing of books and wine

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

In the West End of London there is an alley which insinuates its way between the Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane. It is called Cecil Court, and the Salisbury pub is close at hand. Those are clues. The area around Cecil Court has been owned by the Salisbury branch of the Cecil family since the 17th century.

For a long period, it was not a salubrious area. At least one local was hanged. Others were transported. There may have been a whorehouse or two. The ambience resembled a cross between Fagin’s kitchen and Mistress Quickly’s Boar’s Head, with Doll tearing the sheets.

Then everything changed, thanks to Victorian morality and political pressure. The Third Marquess of Salisbury was a devout churchman as well as a prime minister. His opponents delighted in teasing him about slum-landlordism in Cecil Court. So it was redeveloped, becoming a mixture of mansion flats and small shops, mainly dealing in books and antiquities. Some resemble the Old Curiosity Shop. (Did Wilde go too far when he said that you would need a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell?) There are places to fossick – a good Scots word surely self-explanatory in context – in search of original or unusual presents. There are also shops which attract learned men: scholarly fossickers.

One such is Bryars & Bryars, run by Tim Bryars and his wife Tinda. From boyhood, Tim knew his life would be bound up with books. He takes a sensual pleasure from the volumes on his shelves. His great specialism is maps and there are those, competent to judge, who claim that he is one of the leading experts in Europe. Tim has co-authored a book on modern maps in the British Library and regularly contributes to learned journals, as well as running the London Map Fair. The latest one is next month at the Royal Geographical Society.

But he also knows a lot about early printed books in Latin or Greek. His expertise is about enhancement, not about setting limits. He will take a delight in any interesting book which comes his way, for he believes that bibliophilia is one of the guardians of western civilisation.

In lesser quests, he is happy to assist individuals or institutions with large budgets which they can dedicate to extending great collections. But he also enjoys guiding the timorous who have always been interested in books while assuming that book-collecting was not for them and who have small budgets. For them, Bryars & Bryars could be a gradus ad Parnassum.

Fortunate visitors may also benefit from another Bryars specialism. Tim is an oenophile as well as a bibliophile and virtually runs a club as well as a bookshop. During a recent meandering afternoon, book talk was enhanced by Picpoul de Pinet and an excellent Barbera d’Alba from the G.D. Vajra estate. Even so, the highest accolades were awarded to a Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett 2016 from J.J. Prüm, that glorious grower: a house which knows as much about Mosel as Tim Bryars does about maps – and to a Passito Ben Ryé from Pantelleria. I must confess to ignorance: I had not known that Pantelleria produced wine. But a local Muscat grape makes excellent sweet wines, subtle and complex. The island is heavily volcanic, hence soil with an abundance of minerality. In good times, oenophilia and bibliophilia have often reinforced each other. Long may this continue.

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