Minster Gate Bookshop, 8 Minster Yard, York, YO1 7HL
In the shadow of the imposing York Minster, a little bit tucked away, you’ll find a quiet, little bookshop. On a cold evening, it radiates a soft yellow light from its front windows, promising warmth and refuge. In European Christian tradition, churches like York Minster have provided a sanctuary for the wretched and afflicted; criminals, orphans, victims of crime or violence and fugitives from the law could enter a church and be given asylum for some time. While York Minster would be a grand place to seek refuge and respite from a cruel world, I personally prefer a bookshop, where one need never fear being turned away or rejected, so long as one stays quiet and is gentle with the books.
I am a traveler in York. At least for now anyway, unless I decide to leave London and its extortionate cost of living behind and start again up North. For now, though, I’m just a traveler, dependent on the hospitality of others and, as Blanche DuBois put it, the kindness of strangers. This means that while I’m in York and away from home, I get to take refuge from my everyday life and instead spend some time in someone else’s everyday life. Now, in York, that someone could be anyone a Roman administrator, a Viking settler, an Anglo-Saxon priest, a Victorian writer or a 21st century student. York has had so many lives already, as evidenced by its name. When the Romans first founded the city and built its still-standing walls in71 CE, they called it Eboracum. Under the Anglo-Saxons this became Eoforwic, then Jorvik under the Vikings and finally York, via various Middle English iterations including Yerk, Yourke and Yarke over the years. In this city there are endless possible narratives to slip yourself into as you shed your self for a little while.
I have written before about how reading and traveling are the perfect combination, as both are fundamentally about leaving behind what is known and familiar and journeying into a different place and a different self. Sometimes this is quite a terrifying prospect, but it can also be an incredibly comforting one as well. Growing up, one of the things that books were to me was a refuge. When family life was loud, when I didn’t want to answer questions, when I simply wanted to disappear, the best way to do this was to open a book. You see, being a girl with her nose in a book is like having an invisibility cloak. No one seems to see you, the book is your shield and it keeps prying eyes and minds at a distance. Little do they know, inside your cloak, a whole world is being built around you, seen from a new and exciting vantage point. It’s just like walking along the streets of a new city; your anonymity keeps you safe from having to engage, lets you hide out a little longer in the secret adventure you’re having on your own.
I had the same feeling in Minster Gate bookshop. Coming in out of the cold and away from the crowds, a whole world of possible escapes presents itself. Within the quiet space of a little bookshop, worlds open up. And in York, a city with such an improbably rich history to untangle, every new story comes with the promise of magic.
Minster Gate Bookshop is split over four floors, each a maze of different rooms. It presents the adventurer with dozens of subcategories of books; History is not just History, but: British History, Archaeology, Ancient History, Military, European, American and World History and, somewhat oddly, Transport. Fiction dominates the basement, with many classics available for discounted prices. They have every single Neil Gaiman book, all sitting in a pile on the floor and all for £3. There are new books, used books, rare and special edition books, prints and maps and all sorts beyond that! There’s everything from crime and mystery to folklore and fairy tale sections. The shelves seem to scream, ‘You can be anyone in here!’
Minster Gate Bookshop, while it caters for many tastes, has a decidedly literary persuasion. With full sections of Literary Theory and Literary Biography, it also has lots of rooms for those funny books that don’t seem to have a clear classification. In a poky little room up on what I think was the third floor, though I lost count, I found a treasure trove of fascinating clever escapes. Arthurian legend, feminist folktales, little-known classics and scholarly criticism rubbed shoulders. My particular favourites in this difficult-to-classify collection were:
The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm
The Book of Legendary Lands by Umberto Eco
The Literary Heritage of the Arabs: An Anthology
The Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare
I wanted to buy all of them and hide away forever wandering through far away, long ago and never-never lands, but in the end, I bought a hardcover first edition of The Second Virago Book of Fairytales by Angela Carter for £6. Like me, Angela Carter was fascinated by fairy tales and folk tales and believed that they have significant insights into why our culture is the way it is, as well as being an excellent example of oral storytelling and quite fun to write and rewrite.
It was only when I walked out of Minster Gate bookshop that I became aware again of the sounds of the city, the crush of the crowd, even what time it was and the stress of knowing I had to get dinner on. Inside, everything was suspended, just like when I used to open a book and hide for a while. When you’re fully engaged in the world of a story – or a world full of stories, which a bookshop should be – everything else seems to disappear. Minster Gate Bookshop, because of its location, probably gets a lot of tourists who poke their heads in, shriek ‘Oh it’s so cute and English! #quaint #janeaustenorwhatever’, take a #geek selfie and then walk out again. And so be it; it’s there for them to do that.
But I think what it’s really there for it to be a refuge that opens its arms to lovers of books, stories and words and lets them leave everything else at the door. Long may it continue to welcome all of us.