It’s official. I’ve found the strangest bookshop in the UK. Congratulations to me.
Cambridge’s Haunted Bookshop is one of the few bookshops in the world that is truly unique – the only one of its kind – and I love it. I’m massively intimidated by it, but I completely love it. While the Waterstone’s in Cambridge has a great selection and a plethora of inspiring titles, it still looks exactly like my local Waterstone’s in Islington. And the one in Trafalgar Square. And the one at Gower Street. Even Cambridge’s own independent bookseller, Heffer’s (review forthcoming), looks exactly like every other branch of Blackwell’s, the major chain that now owns it.
There are a lot of up-sides to this gentrification of everyday life; it makes us comfortable enough to go into a bookshop anywhere in the world (or at least the country) because we know it can’t be all that different from the one at home. And in this day and age, any method towards the end goal of getting people into a bookshop justifies the means. But I think there’s also a lot that gets lost when the slightly different, thoroughly quirky and downright bizarre are edged out. Haruki Murakami wrote that ‘if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’ Surely he could just as easily have warned us that if you only get those books from Amazon’s Top Ten List or – worse – the Books section at Tesco (shudder) your bookshelf will look the same as everyone else’s. And your stories will be the same, too.
That said, I would love to meet someone whose local go-to bookshop is this tiny, cramped little shop in St. Edward’s Passage. What if this was the place you always went when you fancied a browse, if this the collection of books you had to work with whenever you needed a lit fix? I’d imagine that the bizarre combinations your bookshelf held and the stories of hunting, finding, losing, sharing, wanting, coveting, considering and surrendering that those books told about you would fill many pages themselves.
But enough of my philosophising. There’s a bookshop to be fawned over.
First of all, it seems like the shop has two names. Fine. Why not? As it turns out, Sarah Key Books (named, no doubt, after a woman called Sarah Key) specialised in secondhand and antiquarian books and particularly in children’s literature for years before it found its current home at what is called The Haunted Bookshop. Unfortunately I do not have any answers as to how, why or by what it’s haunted. I mean I could of course go all humanities student on you and say that it’s haunted by the voices and stories of writers and readers past. Which, you know, I’m pretty much convinced it is. But I’ve been waxing poetic about dog-eared pages a little too much of late, so I’ll refrain. The other possible haunting is the palpable presence of the owner, sitting behind her desk, head popping up from between piles of books, who almost seems to wish that you’d leave her alone and let her get on with it. It’s kind of a Bernard Black situation. Although once you actually go talk to the staff I promise they’re much lovelier than Bernard Black.
The collection of secondhand and often first editions of classic children’s books is absorbing. From Matilda to Harry Potter, from Enid Blyton to Hans Christian Andersen, from Alice Liddell to Snow White, every child and every childlike adult is covered. Beautiful illustrated hardcover copies and tattered paperbacks range from £4 or £5 to roughly £1500, for something like, say, a first edition of Prince Caspian. For those of us who will probably never have the kind of disposable income required to do more than pick up and maybe sniff these books (if you’re feeling cheeky) it’s like the trials of Tantalus.
Children’s books aren’t all that’s on offer though; the Folio Society editions make their appearance too, as do various editions of classics. I had my eye on a copy of one Sherlock Holmes novel or another, as well as a FS edition of Wuthering Heights. I refrained from buying anything, to my dismay and my wallet’s satisfaction.
Despite not going home with any of these beautiful books, I still felt glad to have found this strange and wonderful little place today. Like Alice falling into Wonderland, or Harry landing in Diagon Alley, walking into the Haunted Bookshop is like stepping through a portal. It’s like being transported back to a time before global monopolies (yes, I’m cross with Amazon for buying Goodreads; I promised not to rant about it), super-chains and clinical, sanitised spaces where no one is ever challenged and nothing new ever happens. It makes me glad to live in the UK because it seems to me that while so much of the world just steps in line and lets the strange and quirky and unpredictable fade out of their lives, some people here (few and far between as they may be) still put up a fight for their weirdness. Sarah Key Books: you’re one of a kind and I hope you never stop fighting to stay that way.