This is something I'll post shortly on Facebook - it's inspired by Neil Gaiman's piece on the same topic - Four Bookshops.
If it isn't too long, have a read. And then maybe you can tell me about your four favourite bookshops.
I’ve been reading “The View From The Cheap Seats”, the collection of non-fiction from Neil Gaiman, and in it there is a piece about the favourite four bookshops from his life. One of them is Dark They Were And Golden Eyed, a science fiction bookshop that also sold comics and used to be in Berwick Street in London. It brought back memories of when I used to make trips down to London a couple of times a year and return to the Midlands with bags full of books and comics. I’d discovered it, along with others, in the brief period, right after University, when I lived and worked in London in my early twenties. It was on my regular round of places to visit whenever I was there but the first of my picks for favourite bookshop was closer to home – Andromeda, in Birmingham. When I say “Andromeda” I’m talking about it in the early days when it was a tiny poky little place on the corner of Summer Row, before it became successful and moved to larger, newer, brighter premises in Suffolk Street that stocked a similar range but was, somehow, too large, too new and too bright. The new shop was OK and still where I went to buy or order any SF or Fantasy related books that I wanted but the old one had been special. The ground floor was tiny and the shelves contained the most recently published books. There was a whole wall dedicated to spin-offs of TV series and movies – Doctor Who, Star Trek, Highlander, Battlestar Galactica and all the others. And those franchises were publishing so many titles every month that the whole wall was needed. I’d take a few of those and anything new that I saw by Michael Moorcock or Terry Pratchett or the latest MYTH novel from Robert Asprin but down the narrow unsafe steps into the basement was the real treasure chamber – the second hand section. They sometimes made attempts to put it in order but mostly exploring there was a matter of randomly picking things up and looking at the cover and the blurb and deciding whether to add them to the pile that I inevitably ended up buying. I got the first couple of John Norman’s Gor novels there – the ones that are Edgar Rice Burrough’s pastiches rather than the out-and-out bondage fantasy the series became later. I would go home with books by Robert Sheckley – eager to find out if I had found one of his straightforward science fiction novels or one of the more surreal pieces like Mindswap or Options. Or else I would have a bag full of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, James Blish and Kurt Vonnegut . I spent most of my money there when I moved back to the Midlands after only about eight months living in London. Sadly even the newer version of the shop has now closed down.
The second bookshop on my list has also closed. Murder One in Charing Cross Road – London’s bookshop Mecca – has gone. Like Dark They Were this was another shop on my regular route around the city. It also had extensive Science Fiction and Romance sections but its main draw was, as the name suggests, crime fiction. I started visiting it to get Sherlock Holmes pastiches. There were a great many and it would have taken every penny I had and a good deal more to even scratch the surface but I always came away with at least a few. Of course there were other finds there too – straightforward copies of Holmes like August Derleth’s (and later Basil Copper’s) Solar Pons, and other detectives like Ellery Queen, The Saint, Father Brown, Lord Peter Wimsey. I would spend hours in there trying to decide which of the hundreds of books I wanted I could actually afford to buy – balancing the desirability of having a particular book against the knowledge that I could buy three or four slightly less desirable ones for the same price. It was a very pleasurable kind of dilemma.
There was never any such dilemma in Marchpane – a children’s bookshop just across the street from Murder one and down in Cecil Court, a narrow pedestrian street filled with specialist bookshops. There was never any such dilemma because I could so rarely afford any of their books. They specialize (they are still open) in rarities and they price them accordingly. For what they sell their prices are reasonable but that places them out of my pocket. I used to spend a little time looking around the shop but always ended up at their unbelievably extensive Alice In Wonderland section. I would take every one of the books from the shelf, look at longingly before checking the price, sighing and putting it back. Very, very occasionally I would buy something that was – perhaps because of its condition – priced within my range. I recall picking up a copy of Ernest La Prade’s Alice In Orchestra Land and Robert Gilmore’s Alice In Quantumland and looking at the window display of pages from the Dali illustrated Alice with a combination of wonder at the art and sorrow that I would never be able to justify paying out several thousand pounds for it. Even if it was a steal at that price.
My final choice isn’t in Birmingham or London – it’s in Eastbourne and I was introduced to it by my brother who spends a good deal of his time scouring second hand bookshops for obscure volumes on Natural History (with particular reference to spiders). Eastbourne is one of those seaside towns that is blessed with an over-abundance of two things – pensioners and bookshops. There are so many bookshops that it seems unfair to single out just one but the leader of the pack has to be Camilla’s in Grove Road. Empty it would be a large and rambling rabbit warren of a place, but it isn’t empty. It is filled to bursting with second hand and antiquarian books on every subject under the sun –more than a million in stock according to their website and I find no trouble in believing it. The books and the narrow paths between them make it seem much smaller and more intimate than it really is. When I go there I am usually looking for Alice In Wonderland editions that I don’t have and that aren’t – unlike the ones in Marchpane – going to cause my bank manager to have a heart attack. But I don’t go straight to the small room at the back that is filled floor to ceiling with books so tightly packed that any individual one needs to be removed with extreme care lest the whole lot should fall and bury the incautious customer. Instead I poke around the other shelves looking at anything that catches my eye – art history, Greek tragedies, a 1938 encyclopedia in German (I bought that one), books about travel, science, cinema, Victorian theatre, 19th century American politics. And then I realize – because my stomach is growling – that I have spent half the day there and I hurry to that children’s section and spend another hour seeking out those rare Alice volumes. I have never yet paid a visit without finding something unexpected for my collection.
And now I live in China with English bookshops almost impossible to find (“almost” because there is a good one that I know in Beijing) and even modern bestsellers very hard to come by. I get by. I find books that travellers have left behind in cafes or I get them sent over from England (wincing in pain at the insane cost of postage). When I went to visit friends in Singapore I brought a bagful back. But one of my greatest pleasures – just browsing in a bookshop – any bookshop – is denied to me now. I think more than anything that’s what I miss about England. Yes, even more than pork pies and cheddar cheese.
"No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." Samuel Johnson.
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Well done, Bob. Longfellow's Books in Portland, Oregon is similar to those warren-like stores you fondly remember. There is, of course, Powell's Books in Portland, which boasts of being the world's largest independent bookstore, but its charm was washed away when founder Michael Powell turned it over to his daughter, who attuned it to Portland's "upscale" image.
Then there's City Lights in San Francisco.
Tinman, what's the name of that great bookstore up your way?
The bottom line for me is that good bookstores have bounced back in many parts of the USA, having weeded out the readers from the instant gratification types, thanks to the advent of the digital age.
You're probably thinking of Third Place Books in lake Forest Park. They now have two other branches, both in former PCC stores. (PCC, Puget consumers Co-op, renamed PCC Natural Markets in 1998. PCC history.)
Yes, bookstores are coming back. Elliott Bay Book Company is an example of one that was about to be driven out by Amazon and other on-line booksellers, but managed to relocate and bounce back.
(Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. moves from longtime Pioneer Square location to Capitol Hill and reopens on April 14, 2010. By Peter Blecha Posted 4/19/2010 HistoryLink.org Essay 9402)This message has been edited. Last edited by: tinman,
When I was working in Providence in the 50s, I would visit Dick's Books, which was along the lines described in the article. Dick was an old grumpy man but he always had recommendations. One day he offered a copy of Thorne Smith's Topper, which I read at one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed. I went back and thanked him for suggesting it, then asked if he had Smith's latest.
"Hrumph," said Dick. "You do know he's been dead for some time, don't you?"
He also introduced me to another Smith, H. Allen, and I accumnulated almost every one of his books. I was surprised to learn recently that my copies of his The Compleat Practical Joker is valued in the hundreds.
Give a man a fish and he can eat for one day; give a man a fishing pole and he will find an excuse to never work again.
Nollidj is power.
Of course I like Powells, but my favorite was a used bookstore in Evanston (Bob, you were there!) that now has closed. It was in a rambling old building (house?), where you found nooks and crannies with wonderful books. There were stuffed chairs along the way so that you could snuggle with a good book.
Another similar bookstore is in Delavan, Wisconsin. It has used books downstairs and upstairs, but the upstairs is particularly inviting. They have bay windows, looking out on this charming little city, where you can sit in a rocking chair and read some of their fabulous collections.