There are bookstores that specialize in specific kinds of books: first editions, 18th Century, poetry, drama, and so on. Collinge and Clarke, this eclectic little shop on Leigh Street in Bloomsbury had some good ones. They apparently specialize in "private presses" and possessed one book I particularly love, as you can see in the second photograph...
a first edition of Virginia Woolf's The Waves.
If I could have only one first edition that would be the one. Particularly because it was a Hogarth Press book, and because Vanessa Bell would have designed the cover, and so on. The Waves was available for 800£ or $1,200, and it wouldn't be on the shelf long, I was told. It was lovely to hold, but I am not going to be acquiring such an item any time soon.
It's much easier to find a first edition of a Gertrude Stein book than it is a Woolf. I have one or two first editions of Stein, and technically one first edition of a Woolf, but it's a book that wasn't published until a few years ago. A copy of her essay, On Being Ill. I don't think that counts...
There used to be a great used bookstore in Toronto, on Bathurst just south of Dupont. I bought several great first editions of Canadian books there--novels and poetry. Paul Vermeersch used to work there I believe and may have more to say on the matter than I.
Another good one, since we're in Toronto now, and not London, is Balfour Books on College. I generally stop in there every time I'm in Toronto, though I don't always find something to fill out my collections. They have a great collection of paperback Canadiana, and often some very good art and criticism. Balfour is in the business of slimming down their stock because they too are moving. Driven out by rising rents as so many bookstores are. They are smart though, they're buying the next building they move into. It's near College and Spadina. Very much looking forward to the new location.
As for the matter of first editions--are we still interested in that? Given the quick and dirty rise of the ebook what will it matter which edition is which? I tend to think this will only make these delicious, material volumes that much more delicious. As much as I like technology, I don't get quite the same buzz from searching iTunes, or the App store as I do sitting in Balfour Books, or The Word here in Montreal, or the many shops I wandered in and out of in London.
On the other hand, I had to go into a Chapters in Oakville last weekend and was horrified by the erasure of all things Indie and Other. Why should I be surprised that a corporation is corporate? Does big necessarily have to be bad? I don't think so. It reminded me of the wasteland of my youth, looking for something interesting in a Coles...it wasn't until encountering my first independents, the old Granville Books in the Granville Mall for example, that I found a deep and vast selection of books that made me want to slip them in my penniless pocket and take them home.