In Praise of Old Bookshops
Copyright © 2009 SM Worsey
I’ve nothing against the likes of ‘Waterstones’ or
‘Borders’; they have their place. In fact, with all this craze for online
ordering, I can’t help feeling relieved that they still stake their claim on
the high street.
However, I have always felt that buying a book should be an
experience. Those modern shops are too brightly lit by half, and they don’t
even smell of books. They try to copy ‘the experience’, bless them, with their
wipe-clean sofas and in-store coffee bars, but they just don’t compete with the
likes of ‘Scrivener’s’ or ‘Scarthin Books’; two lovely old shops in Derbyshire.
Scrivener’s stands proudly at one corner of the old
marketplace in Buxton. The ground floor mostly holds children’s books, from
what I recall, including a complete set of scuffed, bound, hardback Doctor
Doolittles that I drooled over on my visit. A creaking staircase takes you up
through four more floors of musty-scented heaven.
Modern shops are laid out carefully so that all the shelves
are visible to the floor staff, who stand upright at the till, or circulate
attentively, ready to pounce on any puzzled looking customer in order to offer
Old shops just evolve, adding more shelves as the years go
by, until every room in the building bulges with books. You could faint or die
in Scriveners, and it would probably be a while before anyone would notice. The
place doesn’t need any fancy screens or signage to separate its wares, because
they’ve just given a theme to each room, lovingly written on slips of paper and
cellotaped to the doorways.
Mismatched armchairs have been placed in some of the larger
rooms, together with a coffee machine and supply of cups. There’s no charge, of
course. It probably hasn’t even occurred to them to try and make money out of
I could have spent all day in that shop, but I had a
specific purpose. I was seeking a pre-war DIY manual in an attempt to
understand better how to maintain the slate roof and lime-mortared walls of my
house. I didn’t find what I wanted, but I did come across a little book from
the 1930s with some cracking illustrations of purposeful-looking blokes with
rolled up sleeves and pipes jutting from their mouths. It was labelled three
pounds, so I thought I might as well take it.
The shopkeeper flicked through the little book with me,
pointing out that it had been published by a newspaper as a special offer once,
to be sent off for after collecting the required amount of tokens. We discussed
my requirements and he expressed regret that they didn’t have an older book in
I pulled out my purse, but he shrugged it away. ‘Just keep
it,’ he said.
I’d spent nearly two hours in the place, and he wasn’t even
bothered about selling me anything. That’s the fundamental difference between
shops like this and the high street chains; modern shops sell books. Old shops
Scarthin Books in Cromford has a similar layout, except that
it is actually quite difficult to find the staircase at first glance, because
it is concealed behind a bookcase. Making your way through the shop feels like
navigating a maze and there’s no passing room on the stairs, but if you push on
to the top floor, you’re rewarded with a little vegetarian café selling
freshly-cooked food in generous portions. It’s mostly vegan, although they use
free-range eggs, ‘foxes permitting!’
The walls are adorned with random objects such as a ball and
chain and a pair of stocks that they must have found somewhere and carried back
to display in triumph. Not to mention all the playfully grumpy notices,
handwritten, of course.
The chatty lady preparing my soup informed me that the place
used to be the owner’s house. ‘The books gradually took over,’ she explained.
‘A few years ago, they had to move out and get a place over the road. Trouble
is, that’s filling up with books, too!’
Sure enough, even the walls of the toilet were lined with
The claws of capitalism are everywhere these days, but they
recoil in horror at the doors of old bookshops. Long may that be the case!
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