Bookshops emerged in Soho during the 1940s. The innocuous term ‘bookshop’ was a convenient cover; these shops specialized in selling pornography. The early shops from the 1940s usually had a front room, where inoffensive material would be openly sold, and a backroom where the more explicit material was kept. In the 1969 book The Age of Perversion, Jason Douglas gives a description of how these spaces operated:
the counter was topped by a false wall with a hatchway cutting in it via which one made one’s purchases. A door let in this wall, which was covered with scores of personal contact magazines, gave onto the inner room. This counter, however, also contained two closely-packed boxes full of carefully sealed packets of photographs […] The customers entered the shop openly and were strictly divided into the casual browsers who spent a considerable time working through the openly displayed merchandise and those who went straight to the counter and asked for specific requirements. One customer, who asked for some ‘special books’, was invited into the back room from which he emerged a few minutes later with a bulging brief- case. Requests for ‘men and women’ or ‘sex photos’ also met with an invitation to the back room as did the request of a young man in dark glasses who tremulously asked if they had ‘any of men?’ ‘Homo stuff?’ queried the assistant, before issuing the standard invitation.
The gatekeeper of this backroom was the ‘chair’; a forbidding male figure sat behind the counter of the shop who decided whether to grant a customer access. If permitted entry, the customer likely found a suitcase containing the illicit stock that could readily be removed from the shop should members of the police decide to inspect the premises. Casual browsing was not allowed, and the chair kept a watch on the time spent in this backroom.
Stanley Long’s 1971 ‘documentary’ Naughty! includes a sequence that captures a Soho bookshops backroom, albeit a likely staged sequence:
If any readers can recall their visits to the back room, please share a comment.