G. David Bookseller, 16 St.Edward’s Passage, Cambridge, CB2 3PJ
St. Edward’s Passage is a narrow little side street that ducks away off King’s Parade in Cambridge. It’s the kind of street that you could very easily not notice and pass by without ever realising that it was there. G. David Booksellers (also referred to as David’s Bookshop) is, remarkably, even easier to miss, as it’s on a narrower bit of street which veers off to the left while the rest of the street carries on forward. It’s almost as if the bookshop is hiding from the prying eyes of noisy tourists, setting itself apart for those who really want to find it.
Inside is a world where any book-buyer will find something to fall in love with. To make sure of this, G. David stocks new, secondhand and antiquarian books. The new books are usually slightly cheaper than retail price, and they fill up the history, fiction, classics (not classic literature, but classical literature – I love that they have an entire section just for that), Shakespeare (again, his own section), poetry and drama. In amongst these new titles are secondhand books for very cheap prices. In the children’s section there were £1 Wordsworth Editions copies of all the classic children’s tales and cheap secondhand copies of everything from Harry Potter to Narnia, all for around £2 or 3.
The selection is a bit quirky, as it usually is in secondhand bookshops. Like any good secondhand shop, it’s not the place to go when you know what you want or need immediate results. But it is the perfect place for browsing. The new books are clever and well-chosen, so if you do wade through the unorthodoxy that always exists in any good used bookshop and actually buy something, you’re guaranteed to walk out with an actually good book. The secondhand books reveal some interesting patterns – someone nearby has an obsession with PG Wodehouse and has provided dozens, if not hundreds, of his novels, which take up an entire wall. There are also, as I mentioned, dozens of editions of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry and piles of secondary criticism about his works.
Downstairs, in the basement, are the sections that always seem to get relegated to the basement. Isn’t it unfair that fiction is always front and centre, while gardening is always hiding somewhere in a back corner or a dingy cellar? As someone who’s never bought a gardening book in her life, I have no right to complain, but I must say it gives me much more sympathy with the gardening, nature and pets books that always populate those silent, cobwebbed back corners. Although if I were a book, I must say those quiet corners are probably where I would set up camp.
If the front rooms and the basement are the areas where browsers are likely to find something they want to flip through, buy, take home and treasure, then the back room is the place to go when you would actually like to be impractical and a little bit decadent, thank you very much. For it is here that the antiquarian books live. Modern first editions and early copies of classics line the walls with their leather bindings, gold leaf pages and their red and brown spines facing out to the world. They are a sight to be seen. Particularly worth looking at are the many books in the Local Interest shelf, which cover the history of the city of Cambridge, the university and local customs and traditions in Cambridgeshire. A lot of them have fascinating photographs or illustrations of the city from years ago.
From obscenely beautiful books about mundane things like the UK’s flora and fauna to first editions of Ford Madox Ford and T.S. Eliot, there is something here for everyone to admire and try very hard not to literally drool over. The best thing I found, though was a first edition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Aside from how incredible it is to hold a first edition of any famous book in your hands, this particular copy was absolutely unique because of what other readers from the past had left inside it. In the front cover was a beautiful ex libris, which I think was issued by the owner’s primary school, which said that it had belonged to a little girl called Caroline and was given to her in 1950. In addition to this little footprint there was a small yellow sticker on the inside cover referring to a book club operating in Nairobi. How this book made it from a schoolgirl in England in the fifties to a reading group in Kenya is, I’m sure, a fascinating story which I would love to know, but am happy to imagine. I was sad to leave it behind, but maybe one day I’ll go back for it and add my own story to the – clearly long – list of stories in which this single book has played a part.
My parents, together, have read Narnia out loud 28 times. Seven books times four children, taking up years and years of bedtime stories and years of their lives. The box set we have, though it’s not a first edition, is worth infinitely more to me because not only did I sit and invest hours of my life reading them, but I know that all of my brothers, with their tiny child hands, did the same and that 28 times my parents read them aloud, providing definitions of hard words, acquiescing to demands for one more chapter, and doing the squeaky mouse voice of Reepicheep. Beautiful old books have always excited me; medieval manuscripts were my favourite part of every museum, just about beating the dinos for the top spot. There’s a sense that holding them, you are experiencing some kind of communion with the first scribe who copied out the words in some French monastery all the way down to the little girl who wrote her name and the date inside the front cover. But you don’t need to be holding the first edition of Ulysses (but oh my god, can you imagine?) for a book to bring you closer to someone else. Any old book buried in a pile in a shop far away from home can call to mind our own experiences reading, reminding us of the people who’ve shared them with us, the questions they’ve made us ask and memories – private or shared – we’ve made between the pages. Yes, I want the beautiful first edition, but I’d never trade it for my own tattered copy, infinitely more precious but probably worth only about a hundredth of the price.