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.
From an early age I found myself, along with my brothers and sisters, dragged around the 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 the cumulative formative hours spent muttering and groaning alongside my brothers and sisters, on pavements outside countless cold, dusty and child-unfriendly second-hand bookshops; often peering in through uncleaned windows in forlorn hope of catching sight of Mum or Dad beating a retreat, having at last exhausted their capacity for browsing, I love second-hand bookshops.
Instilling a love of second-hand bookshops in my own children
As an adult, I now pretty much do the same. From the moment I was old enough to choose to visit bookshops myself, I have hung around in them. I have hunted bookshops and bookstalls down wherever I have found myself; in Britain and beyond, from Milwaukee to Mumbai, New York and Istanbul to Carlisle. Even when I’m not going somewhere myself, I have encouraged friends to visit the local bookshops – insisting that one friend – who doesn’t even like reading – visit El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires, one of the largest bookstores in the world, as my proxy.
I have wasted and passed time in bookshops, hid inside them, fancied staff sorting shelves in them, worked in them and of course bought books from them. But the one I knew first and best, 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.
The Wise Owl was maintained as a business for thirty years until 1998, by both my parents and my Grandpa, Tony Linnell, who helped manage it. He and my Uncle Michael also regularly filled a battered sky blue Ford Transit 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. Often with me in tow.
The PBFA stands for the rather grand sounding Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association. My Mum even had a bright pink 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 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. Elsewhere stacks of magazines attracted crouching browsers to scrabble through boxes in search of treasure – although, mirroring dentist’s waiting rooms across the land – these were mainly old copies of National Geographic, but intriguingly for a curious teenage boy, odd copies of strange Biker magazines and Playboy sometimes strayed into the piles – along with some sheet music, even more vast amounts of which were kept in the basement.
Making the shop more interesting still, was the fact that we also sold records. A large LP rack stood in front of the desk and this was filled with albums – mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, though the odd more contemporary record would creep in. I remember one afternoon when a man wandered in and leant, arms folded over a row of records and asked if we sold albums. My Grandpa pointed out the stack beneath him, before making a private face at me that suggested the man was a bit of an idiot. I fled into the back in a fit of giggles.
At the time, because most of these ‘old’ records weren’t by bands I knew from Radio 1 I was little interested in them. Looking back now I sometimes wish I could pop back in time to take a look through to see what lost glories I missed, though I suspect unmissed Colin Blunstone, James Last and mid 70s Top of the Pops compilations would far outnumber Northern Soul, Punk or early experimental post-prog-glam-art-folk-rock rarities.
Above the record rack was an old light fitting that had been painted over. On another occasion an inquisitive customer who kept glancing nervously between the album sleeves he was fingering and the light fitting on the ceiling asked what it was, he was informed, again by Grandpa, that it was an electric eye, watching him. He left the shop promptly. I fled laughing. Again.
For me The Wise Owl Bookshop is the archetypal second-hand bookshop. Sadly it no longer exists, but it had a good run, 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. Once in the early 1990s I looked up to see the unmistakable hair of Columbian footballer Carlos Valderrama framing his grinning face as he stared in through the window. 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. 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 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.
Of course although it makes searching for what you want online simple, there is a terrible price to be paid: Amazon avoids the taxes, high rates and other overheads faced by brick and mortar stores. Making it easy for the corporate behemoth to undercut the hard work and personal touch supplied by the world’s hands-on booksellers, as well as grotesquely unfair. Don’t be surprised when Amazon stick all their prices up once the final real world shops have closed up for the last time.
There is a further, more intangible loss, to be faced if the physical bookshop becomes extinct; the pleasures of browsing. Amazon and the like, for all the sophistication of their ever adapting algorithms, cannot replicate the magic, the sheer pleasure of browsing. When you know exactly what you want and find it after pressing a button or two, serendipity goes out the window.
Visit a second-hand bookshop – and the same thing goes for record stores – there’s an irreplaceable further layer of interest, in simply not knowing what you might stumble across. The unexpected, random finds that make the enterprise so exciting. There may well be a whole bunch of specific titles you’re after, but there is always the thrilling potential for lighting upon something you didn’t even know you wanted.
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.
However, there are some aspects common to many second-hand bookshops, that the frequent visitor will begin to notice: 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 – Neville Shute, Rosamond Lehmann, Desmond Bagley etc etc.
You may well 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.