I owe my life to a second-hand bookshop

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The original Wise Owl, Alma Vale Road, Clifton, Bristol

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.

The second incarnation – Whiteladies Road

Refernces & Links

PBFA

Guardian Map of Independent Book shops in UK

Surviving Second-hand bookshops in Bristol

Slightly Foxed to close January 2016

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)

Is this the final chapter for London’s independent bookshops? Guardian article March 2015

On the other hand – a more optimistic piece – There will always be bookstores… 

‘The bookseller from hell’ The Yorkshire shop that charges entry for browsers…

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.

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37 thoughts on “I owe my life to a second-hand bookshop

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  4. The shop opposite the BRI had a brilliant selection of esoteric works.I worked at Bristol Eye Hospital and spent many of my dinner hours browsing the shelves.What a contrast to todays stale online stores.Yep,for me it was just as one might imagine ye olde bookshop to have been.

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  6. York is still good for second-hand bookshops.
    From about 1965 to about 1970 I worked in a bookshop on Park Row, Bristol, opposite the vet school. It was called The Paperback. It was sister to a more well-known shop with the same name in Edinburgh, started by Jim Haynes of Traverse Theatre fame. It was a good little place while it lasted. I still remember some of the customers. Jonathan Donovan was in charge of it. It would be fantastic to find someone one day who remembered it!

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      • Thanks! I’m actually the louise half, not the bob half – not sure why it’s Bob’s name that automatically comes up on emails. Shall be interested to hear if your parents remember The Paperback. I also worked at another independent bookshop called Chapter and Verse, on Park Street, for a bit at the end of the 60’s or possibly 1970 or 1971 – and also off-and-on at John Roberts’ second-hand shop on the Triangle, which was sort of through at the back of the Triangle bookshop, selling new books – where I also worked part-time for a bit! We seem to have been a rather in-bred lot in those days. I never worked in George’s tho’, or John Wright’s, the medical bookshop. I wonder also if your parents remember a lovely children’s bookshop – The Pied Piper – about half-way down George Street in the 50’s and 60’s. . . .

        Best wishes – L

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        • Ah Louise

          I remember most of those others myself – ‘Try John Roberts’ in the Triangle’ was a regularly used phrase when we didn’t have what someone was looking for. I’ll ask them about the Pied Piper as well.

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  7. I enjoyed your story and sympathise.
    Collectors of the world unite! Unfortunately, it’s not only secondhand book shops that are disappearing. The number of secondhand record shops is also rapidly dwindling. No haberdashery shops anywhere any more and what is the future for butchers, fishmongers or greengrocers? Soon the only shops on highstreets will be chemists or clothing chains. Backstreets will not have any shops at all. Perhaps it was better way back then, when people had time to browse.

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  8. A rich heritage. Second hand book stores) pre-owned, used?) are just place of wonder. And affordability. And great conversation. I had a dream once…

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  9. Pingback: “I Owe My Life to a Second-Hand Bookshop” « Atlanta Booklover's Blog

  10. Sorry, I had wanted to write more but my phone is playing up! I had wanted to say that it is a really lovely story! Not everyone is lucky enough to have interesting stories about where their parents met (I think mine met in a pub…) And it sounds great to have grown up with books as such an important part of your childhood. Luckily my brother and I were always encouraged to read and almost always had our noses in a book!

    I’m glad you mentioned Slightly Foxed, it’s a great bookshop. I find it really sad that little, old bookshops are disappearing, it’s always such a treat to browse dusty and rickety shelves and know that you are in the company of people who share a passion for books!

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    • Yes it was great to grow up surrounded by books. It didn’t really occur to me as a kid that the way my parents met was romantic or unusual. Only now do i appreciate that it was a little bit of magic. I just hope enough of us bookshop lovers can help keep at least some of the smaller more interesting ones going. As for Slightly Foxed, it’s in a good site, lots of big readers – with money to spend – live nearby, so there’s hope for it.

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  11. Used bookstores are the best! I love to peruse them for really old dictionaries and just take my time to wander around inside to see what’s there. I’ve found a few new favorites and even met up with some old favorites that way. Besides, nothing beats the smell of paper and ink and old bookstores are great places to spend a rainy day or make a new acquaintance. Thanks for posting on this!

    P.S. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

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  12. You can see where the shop was – it’s the black and white painted one on the right hand side of the road in this clip of a ride down Upper Maudlin Street. Wise Owl as was appears about 1.51.

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  13. Barnstaple – brings back memories. I’m not from England but last summer, I was there. To my joy, they had so many bookshops. WHSmith, of course. But what was better were the other charity shops. I would go in the morning, pick up the books I want, then go to any shop for boxes to pack them in before heading off to the Post Office to have them shipped home.

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  14. I share your concern about the diminishing number of brick and mortar bookshops…so much so that I set up a website at http://www.literarytourist.com to list as many of them as I could find. The hope is that this will help and encourage those who love em, to visit and buy books at em.

    [This domain no longer appears to be in use as the original poster intended – RE]

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  16. How nice to be eulogised. But your memory of ‘the first monthly Fair in July 1972’ is a little faulty (you were, after all, only one year old). It was held at the Hotel Eden and there were at least two other exhibitors: Brian Troath, and Ian Hodgkins, as Sebastian d’Orsai; plus others, but at this remove I forget who they were. We did not establish the PBFA until 1974. And we do not stop in our never ending, but now rather forlorn quest for the perfect book – whatever it may happen to be at the time.
    Papa Doc (Bob Gilbert)

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    • Brian Troath and Ian Hodgkins in fact were at the second monthly fair held at the Hotel Eden. Your initial list for the first fair is correct! We had great fun exhibiting with your Dad & Mother. Although the PBFA was not formalized until 1974 we have always considered this was the real start.

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  17. For anyone interested in the PBFA. I found a list of the original exhibitors, including my parents in the organisation’s first fair held in July 1972.

    “Booksellers who exhibited at the first monthly Fair in July 1972 were: Gerry & Susan Mosdell, Porcupines, Barnstaple; Glenda & Derek Wallis, Bibliotique, Bath; R.A. Gilbert, Bristol; Wise Owl Bookshop, Bristol; Alan Wilson, Liverpool; Paul Minet, Piccadilly Rare Books; Chris & Mary Irwin, Loughborough Book House; M & P Carter, The Old Cinema Bookshop, Ilfracombe.”

    http://www.inprint.co.uk/thebookguide/fairs/should_the_ABA_and_PBFA_amalgamate.php

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