Songs on Diagon Alley: The Story of Travis & Emery

It’s a short but steep set of stairs down to the basement. I cling to the handrail as I descend, turning a tight angle to duck under the low doorway. The space inside is as narrow as the shop floor above, but extends considerably further. It’s as equally stacked high with stock, and space is tight.

It’s a condition acutely familiar to used book buyers like myself: cramped abundance. I’m told we will have to perch on stools. So I find a nearby shelf space for my laptop to record us, above a pile of Purcell scores.

I can’t remember when I first chanced upon Travis & Emery, a business specialising in old music books and sheet music in the heart of London’s West End. It’s a short walk from some of the capital’s prime cultural and tourist assets. The Coliseum – home (for now at least) to English National Opera – is literally around the corner.

But even for the seasoned Londoner, Travis & Emery is easy to miss. It’s part of Cecil Court, which runs between the busy Charing Cross Road and St. Martin’s Lane. One day I must have made a detour down here while killing time. After all, it’s often on the side-streets where you find the most interesting things. 

This was a fact understood by J.K. Rowling, who set the secret Wizard retail destination of Diagon Alley just off the Charing Cross Road. Today, tour guides will stand at the mouth of Cecil Court and claim this street was its inspiration. The presence of occult bookshop Watkins certainly lends credence to the theory, but its other stores showcase antique specialisms with their own kinds of magic – from old maps to editions of Alice in Wonderland. 

A blue plaque notes that the Mozarts lodged in Cecil Court in 1764. An auspicious sign, perhaps.

Your first sight of Travis & Emery might be the crates of discounted scores placed outside, but a smartly arranged window display promises greater goods within. Inside, various categories of sheet music run high up the right wall, and books about music populate the left, while an island unit is replete with further offerings. Room to manoeuvre is not ample.

Joining me in the subterranean gathering is Giles, whose aunt founded Travis & Emery in 1960, and from whom he inherited it after her death in the 1990s. Alongside him sits Charlie, a young choral conductor who’s also the shop manager.

The shop’s wooden, cupboardly charm is the sort of retail experience that’s not supposed to exist in central London anymore – tales of beloved independent businesses closing have become axiomatic in recent years. So I wanted to know how a business like this can still operate in the belly of the capitalist beast. I ask, is Cecil Court protected somehow?

Giles recalls his lease conditions. ‘I’m not allowed to sell food, run a betting shop…or run an immoral house’, he laughs. ‘It tends towards being bookshops, but because bookshops are not particularly profitable, it doesn’t always end up being bookshops’.

There’s more to Travis and Emery than immediately meets the eye. Their trade spans a wide gamut. At one end, a cheap score is picked up by a cash-strapped music student, a passing operagoer buys a biography. But at the other are the serious collectables: antiquarian music books, scores and ephemera, the rarest of which can sell for hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

‘Someone came in on Valentine’s Day looking for something for his wife, and he says she likes Benjamin Britten’, Charlie tells me. ‘I thought to myself: we have a book signed by Britten and Peter Pears. That was an instant sale of something that was two or three hundred pounds. So that’s a nice feeling.’

I ask Giles to explain how the shop came about, and he begins in an unexpected place. His grandfather, Sir Edward Travis, was the director of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, the famous Wartime codebreaking centre, and then at GCHQ. His daughter and Giles’s aunt, Valérie Travis, worked at Bletchley too before going into the book trade. 

She worked in Cecil Court for Alec Clunes – father of television actor Martin Clunes – but when she married the organist and Bach scholar Walter Emery, the name for her own business was born. ‘She had managed to get a typewriter from a U-Boat, which her husband then used to type up his musicology notes’, Giles adds.

After Valérie’s death, he inherited a business in bad shape. ‘We’d got about three years left on the fag-end of a 100-year lease. There had been water coming down…’, he gestures at the wall. The shop still had an archaic rotary telephone, and a forbiddingly inscrutable computer. It also had debt. That problem was solved by the discovery of a rare manuscript, under an old box of tissues.

Today, Travis & Emery does a lot of business online, although a print catalogue of recent acquisitions still goes out by mail. Im handed the latest edition, with Saint Cecilia on the cover. Mail orders make up about half of the trade, and during lockdown it naturally became a lifeline. But about half of these orders are international, and Britain’s exit from the EU Customs Union has added a bureaucratic burden. ‘We’ve probably lost a couple of customers that way, people who just don’t want to deal with the hassle’, Charlie says.

Giles’s own musical education didn’t extend beyond playing horn at school and college, but now most of the shop staff have music degrees. Its regular shifts are useful for those working in an all-too-precarious music industry, and a couple of jobbing actors sometimes fill in too.

Downsizing institutions are one way they acquire stock. Auctions are another, and sometimes the estate of a deceased musician will get in touch directly. If they’re well known, it can be a selling point – a note goes on the door about their scores. ‘We catalogue every interesting book that passes through the front desk, telling you about its condition, Charlie adds.

But one thing becomes clear: what you see in the shop is only the tip of the iceberg. Giles’s home is often the first port of call for acquisitions – a sort of home-counties Ellis Island for the huddled masses of music publishing, yearning to breathe free.

The personal collections that the shop acquires may also come with unexpected items. A photograph might need returning to relatives, or an embarrassing letter kept under wraps. Giles recalls a volume covered in brown newspaper with ‘Beethoven’ written down the spine. Inside was a compilation of soft pornography. To each their own Immortal Beloved, I suppose.

But for me at least, that lingering sense of history is precisely what makes second-hand books so appealing – a personal inscription, a curiously dated style. So often they seem lived in, loved, and have a story to tell.

I ask Giles and Charlie what they think about the recent news that Hal Leonard have closed seven MusicRoom outlets, leaving only the flagship store on Denmark Street. Is the state of the music market a concern for them? Might they even benefit from less competition? 

‘We thrive together as music shops’, Charlie says. But he notes a crucial difference: the bread-and-butter of those stores, such as the latest ABRSM syllabus, is the same whether you buy it in-store or online. ‘It’s not the same experience as coming here and having complete serendipity of what you might find – hundreds of years worth of sheet music’. Giles adds that theres a lot of mutual goodwill among dealers in their musical niche.

The rise of tablet scores is something they both see as a potential challenge for the 63-year-old business. I point out that while e-readers have been around for a while, the paper novel still seems to be going strong. 

‘The differentiation is the beauty and physicality’, Charlie says. ‘I think that maybe sheet music will go the way of books. Since Kindles came out, books are generally more attractive, have more interesting designs, they’ll make more of a point of what paper they’re using, there’s more collectable editions…the desire for physical objects is very much still strong.

And in his own life as a conductor, does he stay loyal to paper? ‘I only use sheet music’, he says, and smiles. ‘At this point I feel like I have to’.

You can find Travis & Emery at 17 Cecil Court, London, and visit their website.

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