In Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, aspiring novelist Gil Pender lives out the fantasy of meeting his literary heroes. Transported to the merry-go-round of 1920s Paris, he drinks with Ernest Hemingway, flirts with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and hears his writing praised by Gertrude Stein.
In London, this scenario requires no midnight-striking clock. Instead, look for a set of gray stone steps at the northwest corner of St. James’s Square. Here, the soft tread of writers, thinkers, and actors—Virginia Woolf, Charles Darwin, and Sir Tom Stoppard—has ascended since 1841.
The London Library, London’s oldest lending library, is an independent charity, open to all who can pay the membership fee. At $60 per month, it costs less than half a hot desk at WeWork and half the price of a monthly young-person membership to Soho House.
Its current president is Helena Bonham Carter, and members include Kazuo Ishiguro, Simon Schama, and Claire Tomalin, but the Library is buzzing with young people, too. Twenty-five-year-old aspiring novelist Lloyd Harry-Davis joined last year, visiting four days each week even though it requires an hour-long commute from his East London home. His Library routine nurtures discipline, but mainly, he says, “it’s about the aesthetic. Surroundings matter.”
Members leave coats and iPhones in the hall and ascend to the Reading Room, where deep leather armchairs present inviting opportunities to read up on physics, philosophy, and poetry. Next door, in the Writers’ Room, a group of lamp-lit desks hum quietly with collective endeavor.
One floor up, the steel stacks are home to more than a million books categorized by subject, which leads to a wonderful serendipity for readers. “I’ve got a book out now—Chasing the Sun, by Linda Geddes—all about the effect of sunlight on our bodies,” says Alexandra Shulman, one of the Library’s vice presidents and the former editor of British Vogue. “It’s the kind of book I never would have found [on my own]. But I was looking for a book on snow, and there it was, under ‘Weather.’”
Telltale red labels can be seen all around the St. James neighborhood, an elegant and rarefied part of London full of gentleman’s clubs, hatmakers, and wine merchants. The Library lacks a café, so members in need of some sunshine or hydration take to St. James’s Square. All floppy hair and corduroy, they sit at benches or lie under the trees, easily distinguished from the hedge-funders in their Savile Row suits.
Laptops may be left inside. The Library is such a trustworthy place that Edmund de Waal once left a precious ivory netsuke on his desk over lunch, or so I am told by Katy Hessel, who wrote The Story of Art Without Men at the Library and now runs its Art/Lit Salon events. Along with many other young members, Hessel likes to stay late at the Library, which is open until nine o’clock on Monday and Tuesday nights. “Self-employed writers need a community,” she says. “Everyone is friendly, and chances are you’ll go to the pub after.”
It’s also not a bad place to find a date—members are known to leave phone numbers on the occasional desk. It’s not quite Gertrude Stein’s salon, but the dream of romance is most definitely alive.
Daisy Dawnay is a London-based writer