The Pleasures of London’s Donlon Books

‘I stayed first for an hour, then whole afternoons and, eventually, days’

Wolfgang Tillmans, Conor Donlon in Cologne 2016, 2016, black and white photograph. Courtesy: the artist and Maureen Paley, London

Wolfgang Tillmans, Conor Donlon in Cologne 2016, 2016, black and white photograph. Courtesy: the artist and Maureen Paley, London

In Norwich, where I moved last winter, bookshops are lifestyle centres for upper-middle-class priggishness, local batch coffee and inspirational notebooks. ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’ is a vituperous cliché but it teaches something about enthusiasm.

Each time I stuck my head into Donlon Books, at the top of Broadway Market in east London – staying first for an hour, then whole afternoons and, eventually, days – I knew what I’d got; only, finally, I had to be gone, from the city that’s an anagram of the owner’s surname. Conor Donlon, a quietly dandyish no-bullshit Irish sissy, could not be less like the comedian Dylan Moran’s Bernard Black, owner of Black Books in the eponymous TV show (2000–04), who withholds even the tattiest Penguin. ‘The pleasure,’ Conor explains, ‘is finding books and getting them to people.’ And because a copy of Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s World of Interiors (2008) is not actually worth £1,000 just because Abebooks lists it so, his prices are the best.

Once, listening to Drums of Death’s Fierce (2011) on heavy rotation in the shop, I confided how broke I was (book buying), so Conor found me a job wiring modernist lamps because my dad had been an electrician in the army. I worked off my debt to Why I Got Into Art (1991), The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift (2015), More Brilliant Than the Sun (1998) and London After the Dream (1985) by making lightbulbs switch on.

Jonathan P. Watts is a contemporary art critic based in Norwich, UK, where he co-runs the gallery LOWER.GREEN.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019

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Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

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