If you find yourself in London, browsing your way down that ultimate book-fancier's heaven, Charing Cross Road, make sure you stop by No. 94.
"Wait a minute," you say. "Surely it's 84 Charing Cross Road that's the famous bookstore—the one they made the movie about, the one in Helene Hanff's book." (That 1970 book, according to the cover of my paperback copy, is "The delightful best-selling chronicle of a 20-year trans-Atlantic love-affair-by-mail.")
No, there's no mistake. It's No. 94 I'm talking about, the address of Sports-pages, one of the few stores in the world that devotes itself entirely to sports books—and these days, of course, to sports videos.
Sportspages carries more than 3,500 titles. For instance, you can lay out $47 for a volume of Kinanthropometry, a study of "movement measurement in man," edited by Thomas Reilly, James Watkins and Jan Borms, that includes, on page 56, a table displaying the mean and standard deviations of motor characteristics of Belgian judoists. Or you can pick up a paperback called Showdown in Seville—not a thriller but a report on last year's clash between chess masters Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. Less esoterically, you can discover how to Eat to Win, by Robert Haas. Or play, with Jack Nicklaus, My Most Memorable Shots in the Majors. Or get aggressive with Greg Norman in his guide to golf, Shark Attack!
"O.K., I've sold only two copies of Kinanthropometry in almost three years," says the proprietor of No. 94, John Gaustad. "To libraries. But this stuff is like wallpaper that says, 'This place is serious, see?' "
So is Gaustad, the 40-year-old New Zealander whose sales have tripled in the nearly three years since he opened Sportspages. For a sporting bookseller, Gaustad has an impeccable background. "When I was a child," he says, "I tried all sorts of sports. I was the classic kid who knew every statistic and rule but wasn't any good. I wasn't strong enough, I wasn't big enough, my hand-eye coordination was appalling, my reflexes not credible. And in New Zealand the game was rugby. It was rough."
Gaustad graduated in 1971 from Victoria University of Wellington in his native land with a degree in philosophy. Then came the mandatory four-month tour of Europe, after which he deviated from the customary path. Most New Zealanders, once they have seen the world, return to the antipodes and settle down. Not Gaustad. Deliberately, he watched his money run out so that he had to make it in the Old World. He then spent eight years as a department head at Heffers, an aristocratic Cambridge bookseller, rising to senior manager of the nonfiction section. In 1985 his passion for sports and his accumulated managerial skills came together. Using his life's savings as a down payment, he bought a store on Charing Cross Road, and Sportspages was born.
Gaustad expects his enterprise to continue to flourish. "I've struck a deal with Simon and Schuster, Inc.," he says, "to combine their name with Sportspages in reissuing a series of sports classics, chosen by me, the object being to prove that it is possible to write lyrically, in good prose, about sport. The list we started last fall is dominated by Americans—Thomas Boswell, Roger Angell, A.J. Liebling."
So far, the biggest seller of the new series (edited by Gaustad) is Foul!, an anthology of pieces from an "alternative" soccer magazine that flourished in Britain in the '70s, before it was extinguished by libel actions. Nevertheless, the magazine spawned perhaps 40 imitators, such as An Imperfect Match and AWOL.
On Saturday mornings a crowd gathers in one corner of Sportspages to thumb through these samizdat sports publications that pillory management and players. Imagine a piece on George Steinbrenner written by Lenny Bruce and published by Hugh Hefner, and you'll get the idea.
Also reflected in Sportspages is the new popularity in Britain of American sports, fostered by the televising of U.S. football and, recently, baseball games. There are more football books on the shelves than can be found in many New York City bookstores. But Gaustad is proudest of his baseball section, which includes more than 200 titles. Keep in mind, though, that because the books are imported, they tend to be a bit expensive for American visitors. "I've destroyed the minds of a few tourists," he chuckles, "running videos of the Mets playing ball on the big screen in the front window."
Are some of those tourists actually looking for romantic No. 84, only a door or two away?
"Could be," says Gaustad. "But they'd be disappointed. All it sells now are compact discs and players."