Neil Adams, after working at the antiquarian bookshop for the past 45 years, has become a familiar face to the students that frequent itShelley Yang for Varsity

Stepping into G. David bookstore after closing time, I am met with the familiar sight and smell of thousands of books overflowing from shelves. I have visited this place many times before and spent far too much money inside these walls. I am greeted by Neil Adams, a familiar face to anyone who frequents this establishment’s antiquarian section. It is in this section, nestled in a large room at the back of the store that we begin.

“This is G. David bookshop, founded in 1896,” Adams proudly tells me. He explains that it started as a stall in the market, run by Gustave David, a Parisian man who had settled in Cambridge. As his success grew, he acquired a permanent building on St Edward’s Passage, where the shop remains to this day. Adams then goes on to tell me how he first got involved: “I wasn’t actually doing anything before this. I was a Saturday boy on the market. My father was a book collector, so they knew him, and a week before I was 16, they offered me a job.” He’s stayed for the last 45 years.

“I think just being small helped us survive”

To a modern bibliophile like myself, G. David seems like it’s on the larger side for an antiquarian bookshop. However, Adams explains that compared to the many other bookshops that once lined the streets of Cambridge, it’s rather small. He believes this has been the key to G David’s survival.

“When I started, there was Dighton & Bell, Galloway & Porter, and lots of other Cambridge bookshops, but one by one, they just disappeared. This was a small one, one of the smallest of all the Cambridge bookshops. I think just being small helped us survive.” Adams explains that Heffers has always been one of the largest bookshops in the city. This meant it had to adapt to the times, selling mainly newly printed books. Yet, it was still acquired by Blackwells in 1999. Against all odds, G. David has been able to remain primarily a second-hand and antiquarian bookseller while also staying in the hands of Gustave David’s great-grandson, David Asplin.

“Some books from Darwin’s own family have also been acquired over the years”

Over the years, the shop has had its share of interesting clientele. “We have a lot of regular customers, students, academics, professors, in and out of the shop, some of them twice a day.” However, one client sticks out: “John Maynard Keynes, as an undergraduate, bought from the shop a first edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica for just four shillings.” If my maths is correct, 4s is just shy of 50p. Adjusting for the value of a pound between 1902 and 1904, when Keynes was at King’s College Cambridge, means he bought the book for roughly £77. Adams explains you would be lucky to find one with a starting auction price of less than half a million these days. One sold in 2016 for $3.7 million: “He really was an economist.” Keynes was such a bibliophile that “he would even help David to unload the new boxes of acquired books, just to be able to get in first and see what was coming through. Such was the competition.”

The shop also has a link with another famous Cantab, Charles Darwin. Though he was long dead before the store existed, some of his books ended up here. “We have had The Origin of Species through two or three times in its first edition. A presentation copy of a later edition as well.” Some books from Darwin’s own family have also been acquired over the years. “One I bought many years ago that I wish I still had was a copy of Thomson’s The Seasons, signed by Darwin’s sister.” Adams explains that after Darwin’s mother died, his sister came to Cambridge to read the poems to him. “I had the very copy. All booksellers have regrets about some things they sell on. That’s certainly one of mine.”


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In more recent years, students and professors have rushed to get newly acquired books from the library of yet another famous alumnus of the University. “We had Stephen Hawking’s books about five years ago. A big collection.” He brings me over to the desk, where he has one to show me. Opening up the cover, I see the label marking it as belonging to the physicist. “We had several hundred. The books weren’t all from his library. A lot of them were just from the home. So Stephen Hawking might never have touched them […] but students went absolutely nuts. Within a couple of months, they were all gone.”

G. David has always been a Cambridge institution. Adams tells me that in 1925, Trinity College wanted to commend him with either an honorary degree or a feast. He chose the feast, which he subsequently fell asleep at. G. David bookshop has stayed at the heart of Cambridge life for many, and though Adams expresses uncertainty about the very long-term future of the store, he is happy to be witnessing a huge resurgence of interest in old books by younger generations.