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.
The Wise Owl in the 1990s (in a still from an Aardman TV series called Rex the Runt)
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
Guardian readers recommend favourite independent bookshops
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?
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 opaque vinyl in the windows and some chairs in front.
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.
42 thoughts on “I owe my life to a second-hand bookshop”
Thanks for the fascinating history. I came across this post as I was researching the history of various bits of Bristol, and also specifically the Stella Matutina, so I’ve been reading a few books by a certain RA Gilbert!
It’s lovely to hear some of the personal backstory, and see the pictures of Wise Owl. And there is some hope to be had for Bristol bookshops, too. In the last week I’ve visited two new shops: the Community Bookshop in Clifton Village (all proceeds go to the charity Studio Upstairs) and Book Haus in the new Wapping Wharf development on the harbourside (a glossy-looking but independently-owned place), so people are clearly still taking a chance on the trade, at least…
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Cheers, glad you enjoyed it. RAG says “You might care to let him know that there is now (2021) a new edition of my Golden Dawn Companion, which contains the details of many more Stella Matutina members. (Thoth Publications, ISBN 978-1870450591).” 😄
Ah, fantastic, thank you. I was reading the earlier edition at the library last week (it’s the first time I’ve ever had to have the librarian go and fetch something from the non-open-access bit of the Reference section for me! Clearly they value the book…) It’s already been very helpful putting some addresses to some names to give me more of a feel for where things happened. I shall put in an order for the new edition.
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Dear Richly Evocative,
Herman Melville once wrote that a whaleship was his Harvard & his Yale, well my Harvard & Yale was the Alan Hancox Bookshop in Cheltenham which I first entered on Jan.16th 1970 & walked out with my first two buys: Sylvanus Griswold Morley’s THE ANCIENT MAYA & the 1932 ed. of D.H.Lawrence’s COLLECTED LETTERS, both lovely hardcover editions from an earlier era. For the next seven years I spent more time in that bookshop than all my years at college.
I was introduced to secondhand bookshops by my mother in 1962 & still remembering the day we entered a secondhand bookshop in Nelson that was closing down (yes, closure happened even then) and every book on the crowded bookshelves was just one old penny. Can you imagine!
Working every now again in bookshops became a frequent occurrence: Colne, Nelson, Gloucester, Cirencester, Stromness; and through the years I have travelled many miles to visit a secondhand bookshop which someone dropped a mention of, though strangely I never became a bookdealer myself. I once asked Alan how he could part with the books – answer: everything comes around again.
Which is the lesson I have learned from our Covid year, for although I miss no longer being able to drive & must rely on ABE I was still able to trace a copy of John Aubrey’s MONUMENTA BRITANNICA, last seen 40 years ago at an extravagant price well beyond my means, and discover an affordable ABE copy, which in this case was the editor’s own copy. The editor was John Fowles.
Many thanks for your wonderfully evocative thoughts on books,
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Hi Steve – so glad my post resonated. Eight years in it’s still one of the most viewed. I think once that book and bookshop bug has bitten it’s near impossible to shake. I certainly miss browsing basements for books I don’t yet know I want!
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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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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!
I’ll ask my parents to see if they remember that one. There’s a rather sad roll-call of Bristol bookshops that are no longer there.
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
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.
Dear Louise Summers, I’m writing a book and am doing research on John Roberts’s Bookshop on The Triangle in Bristol, previously called Stanley Roberts & Alford (or so I believe). It is the Alford that I’m interested in, namely Peter Alford. Is there anyone who can help me in this? Please contact me at email@example.com.
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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.
Glad you enjoyed it. Increasing amounts of small and interesting shops seem to be vanishing fast – along with pubs too – there’s an interesting chapter on this kind of thing in Paul Kingsnorth’s book Real England, which is well worth a read, if a little grim. As for record shops, there’s a tribute to one of my favourites here: https://richlyevocative.wordpress.com/2011/04/15/record-store-day-heres-to-revolver-records-bristol/
Enjoyed some of the classic covers on your blog too.
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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what name should i tell her? email me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you would rather not stick your name on this for all to read, and tell Ben I said hello, my name is (obviously enough) john brodie
oh, and maybe you knew Tim Atkins?
Hi John, I don’t remember Tim, there was also Sarah who was manager at the time. And Don? Distinguished rather dapper man with a wonderful deep and fruity voice.
Yes, I knew both Don and Sarah. I may see Vivi when I am next in London, shall I tell her you said hello?
Yes definitely. Send her the link too if you like. I still see Ben fairly often. He’s still acting and now has two children
When did you work at the GRB? I was there from 2000 to 2009..John
I worked there between1994 and 1996. I guess Nick was still there when you were, maybe Vivi as well? Possibly you also met Ben Abell who worked there part time.
Yes, Nick was still there. I know Vivi well and Ben was there too on and off for a few years of my time. Happy days! (mostly)
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.
That was a lovely
Glad you enjoyed it.
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!
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.
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.
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]
Great site. I’ll delve deeper once I’m not at work. Glad you like the article. You may have seen this, but if not it might be of interest: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKVcQnyEIT8&feature=youtu.be
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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)
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.
Thanks for the correction. Dad’s memory is a little hazy about exactly who and what were involved and when, but he agreed that you’re more likely to have the full facts.
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.”
How interesting 🙂 I love second-hand bookshops, too! They are hidden treasure troves!