Having a pair of second-hand and antiquarian booksellers as parents doesn’t mean that you are genetically determined to be a bibliophile, but does make it more likely.
Certainly by the time I was at secondary school I had developed a pretty serious reading habit. I can well remember the baffled and angry face of a boy in my year; whose question, come accusation: ‘GILBERT YOU ACTUALLY LIKE BOOKS INNIT?’ simply made me nod. I just couldn’t see what was wrong with this, much less take it as an insult. Some years before, back in 1968, my Dad had wandered into a newly opened store in Bristol called The Wise Owl Bookshop. As ever, he was on the hunt for bargains, hoping to ferret out an underpriced or overlooked gem that he could resell at a profit. Instead, or quite possibly as well, he found Mum.
Around three years after this astoundingly successful bargain hunting trip, I was born and ever since books have been central to my existence. I even met my own wife at a publisher’s Booker Prize drinks party. So from an early age I found myself, along with my brothers and sisters, dragged around the provincial second-hand bookshops of Britain. Often this made for an incredibly tedious experience.
Children are impatient at the best of times, but when your parents have disappeared into the bowels of yet another seedy, scruffy and eccentrically organised shop in the backstreets of Lincoln, Edinburgh, Bradford or Barnstaple, as they assiduously plough their way through every shelf and box in the place, you really begin to understand the meaning of boredom. Despite this I love second-hand bookshops.
From the moment I was old enough to make my own choices in such matters I have hung around in them, hunted them down, passed time in them, bought from them, hid in them, fancied staff sorting shelves in them and worked in them. The Wise Owl Bookshop, founded by my Mum and named by her after a shop in a Malcolm Saville book, will always be my favourite. It was maintained as a business for thirty years until 1998 by both my parents and my Grandpa who helped manage it. He and my Uncle Michael also regularly filled a battered sky blue Ford Transit van with folding shelves and boxes of books, which they’d drive off to various parts of the country to attend PBFA book fairs in places like Droitwich, Ludlow and closer to home Bath and Bristol. Sometimes with me in tow.
The PBFA stands for the rather grand sounding Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association. My Mum even had a PBFA T-shirt, with the slogan: Buy a book. Help Stamp Out Television. Her first shop was in Alma Vale Road, Clifton, Bristol. Later there was another branch at the top of Blackboy Hill and my Dad once had his own shop in Cotham, but it is the longest surviving Wise Owl shop opposite the Bristol Royal Infirmary on Upper Maudlin Street that is most firmly lodged in my memory.
Upper Maudlin Street 1974 – looking towards Park Row. The Wise Owl is next to the traffic light with the bike in front. Photographer Stephen Dowle.
In my early teens I used to stay Friday nights at my Grandpa’s flat in Cotham, then go down to open the shop on a Saturday morning. The Wise Owl’s stock was wide and varied; much of it spilling out from the shelves and into piles on the floor. There was a good selection of Music books, Performing Arts, Natural History and Local History – or Bristol Books, as some regulars had it, often packed with Reece Winston’s Bristol in old photos books, which I’d pore over, fascinated by images of places like the Dutch House, the docks filled with tall masted ships or trams gliding along Zetland Road. The shop also carried an extensive range of Children’s Books, which my Mum also collected, plus Occult books and Esoterica – my Dad’s field of expertise.
The central shelves in the front room were jammed with paperback classics and modern fiction. The odd stack of magazines – mainly National Geographic, but interestingly to a teenage boy, the odd copy of Playboy also sometimes strayed into the mix – along with a vast amount of sheet music, which was kept in the basement.
What made the shop that little bit extra special in my mind was the fact that we also sold records. A man once came in and looked around the place before leaning on the record rack and asking: “Do you sell Albums?” I had to run into the back to hide my giggling, as my Grandpa pointed the records out and then pulled faces at me that suggested he thought the man was a bit of an idiot.
For me The Wise Owl Bookshop is the archetypal second-hand bookshop. Sadly it no longer exists, but what I find sadder still is the decline of second-hand bookshops in general. They aren’t just vanishing from the high streets either; they are rapidly disappearing from the backstreets as well. In Bristol many of the other shops I used to know have gone – Bristol Books, the Cotham Hill Bookshop, George’s – to name three examples. And it’s not just happening in the West Country.
When I first moved to London I worked in The Gloucester Road Bookshop, in South Kensington. It was an excellent shop, popular with locals and passing trade and always offering something different on the shelves. This attracted many regulars including some rather famous ones such as Dustin Hoffman and Kitaj. The GRB itself is no longer there, though for a few years it was succeeded by another bookshop called Slightly Foxed, but in January 2016 rent increases forced that incarnation out of existence too. Sadly as in so many areas, once the local shop has gone, that’s the end. I suppose it’ll be replaced by yet another coffee shop, or just be turned into flats.
Upper Street in Islington – one area you’d think could sustain a good second-hand bookshop – no longer has one and Charing Cross road has few of the shops left that once made it famous as a Mecca for collectors. Even the world’s first ‘Town of Books’ Hay On Wye is suffering from declining sales in its plethora of second-hand bookshops, a situation some blame on the internet, others on the Literary Festival, but probably part of a more general downward trend caused by a variety of factors – with the online transformation of how we buy, exchange and consume entertainment in general at the heart of the issue. There are many factors at play in this situation, from high rents to supermarkets stocking a few shelves of bestsellers, but the main culprit is the internet. Amazon, eBay and the used-book equivalent ABE books have made buying second-hand books cheaper, easier and perhaps less intimidating. If you know what you are looking for, the internet can be brilliant. Only the other day on Amazon I found a book I’d been after for ages. Countless missions into various London, Bristol and even New York City based shops had failed to turn the thing up, but when I looked online, there it was: ‘Albion’s Fatal Tree’ and – even with the postage added to dispatch it from some vast book-bunker in Michigan – it was cheap.
The trouble is, and what we are in danger of losing forever is the magical thing that online booksellers just can’t replicate, the pleasure of browsing. When you visit a second-hand bookshop – and the same thing goes for record stores – it’s the randomness that makes it so exciting. There may be a whole bunch of titles you’re seeking, but it’s the potential for finding something you didn’t even know you wanted that generates the real thrill.
When you enter a second-hand bookshop – especially one you’ve never been in before – you simply have no idea what you might walk out with. Some things about these places are more or less the same wherever they are: the shelves of bargains left outside to entice you in, the glass cabinets behind the till, filled with First Editions or leather bound antiquarian volumes and a few tottering piles of pulp sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks, interspersed with Mills & Boons and Pan Horror volumes. These are often hidden up or downstairs. There will also be several shelves of the less popular Folio Society editions and an unfeasibly large amount of fictional works by a now unfashionable author – think Neville Shute.
You may also encounter a crotchety owner pricing up further piles of stock, as they huddle next to a portable Calor Gas heater, or a bored looking youth, sighing as they alphabetize the awkwardly thin volumes on the poetry shelves – in-between sneaking a read of their own book, or plotting an escape into some occupation far more worthy of their talent. What you can never predict are the treasures you might find hidden within.
You might find yourself inside the most unpromising looking shop in the world, with a stray Herbert van Thal anthology seeming about as good as it gets, then you find it: the surprise book, the delightful cover, the edition you didn’t know even existed, the volume you just have to take home.
It would be a great loss to never experience this excitement again. So while you still can, have a good browse in your local second-hand bookshop. As good as the internet gets, it can never compare to this.
Refernces & Links
Robert McCrum – Reasons to look at second-hand books
Dispatch from Hay-On-Wye, The Financial Times (If the above link takes you to a subscription notice – try Googling ‘Dispatch from Hay-on- Wye Matthew Engel FT’ and you should be able to view the article)
Here’s what The Wise Owl on Upper Maudlin street looks like now – with a map – it’s the one with the sky blue graphic decor, white surround and white door.
John Cowper Powys on Second-hand Bookshops – this is/was in the window of Walden Books, Chalk Farm
“Though books, as Milton says, may be the embalming of mighty spirits, they are also the resurrection of rebellious, reactionary, fantastical, and wicked spirits! in books dwell all the demons and all the angels of the human mind. it is for this reason that a a bookshop — especially a second-hand bookshop / antiquarian – is an arsenal of explosives, an armory of revolutions, an opium den of reaction.
and just because books are the repository of all the redemptions and damnations, all the sanities and insanities, of the divine anarchy of the soul, they are still, as they have always been, an object of suspicion to every kind of ruling authority. in a second-hand bookshop are the horns of the altar where all the outlawed thoughts of humanity can take refuge! here, like desperate bandits, hide all the reckless progeny of our wild, dark, self-lacerating hearts. a bookshop is powder-magazine, a dynamite-shed, a drugstore of poisons, a bar of intoxicants, a den of opiates, an island of sirens. Of all the ‘houses of ill fame’ which a tyrant, a bureaucrat, a propagandist, a moralist, a champion of law and order, an advocate of keeping people ignorant for their own good, hurries past with averted eyes or threatens with his minions, a bookshop is the most flagrant.” – Autobiography.