Tag Archives: Alice in Wonderland

The Haunted Bookshop (Sarah Key Books)

IMG_1827Sarah Key Books The Haunted Bookshop, 9 St Edward’s Passage, Cambridge, CB2 3PJ

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 IMG_1823and 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 IMG_1825Andersen, 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.

IMG_1826Despite 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.

St Philip’s Books

St Philip’s Books, 82 St Aldates, Oxford, OX1 1RA

On Wednesday morning, I woke up at the ungodly hour of half seven to help my friend Christine (shout-out to Christine!) move to Oxford, the city of spires and surreal views.  Christine is a smart cookie and I don’t just say that because she’s starting an MA at Oxford.  She’s a smart cookie because she’s picked as her new home a city full of cobbled roads, eccentric academics and many, many bookshops.  Ranging from the ubiquitous Waterstones to the Oxford University Press Bookshop to the very classy £2 Bookshop, Oxford is the perfect city for those of us who wish we could curl up under a blanket in a draughty old stone building filled with books so beautiful and old you’re afraid to touch them and never leave.

Walking around the city, I realised that I could have written about any number of bookshops and I sadly had to bypass some that looked amazing, telling myself that now I’ve got more reasons to go back and wander through the streets getting lost. I chose to write about St. Philip’s Books, though, because my friend Gabi (shout-out to Gabs!) has been working there for a few years now and is always telling me about this completely original and completely strange place.  His insights into the way the shop operates (or doesn’t) add even more humour and personality to a wander through it.

St. Philip’s is one of those places you’d easily walk by if you didn’t know it was there.  There are signs that say there’s a bookshop and promise Theology, History, Literature and Philosophy books, but walking past, all you see is a Chinese restaurant.  Fortunately, I had my own personal guide who led me through the wide stone arch, behind the Chinese restaurant and into this quiet little shop removed completely from any noise from the street.  Apparently the staff often have to deal with disgruntled and hungry tourists who aren’t interested in the books and were actually looking for the restaurant. These people probably make up a large percentage of the people who wander into the shop, since I’m assured that even on the best days they expect only about ten customers.

The books in this shop are not exactly for those of us on a budget and, even I admit it, the prices are about twenty times what you’d expect to pay on Amazon. The trouble is, I don’t think you’ll find them on Amazon.  These rare and speciality books include old bibles, first editions of novels and poetry, obscure and often hilarious religious and theological books, leather-bound history books, speciality books about Oxford and a very awesome hard cover edition of The Hobbit.  The copy of The Hobbit that my dad read to me from when I was a child was the gold, hardcover 50th anniversary edition that came in its own box and had gold-leaf pages.  It was the first book (and by that I mean physical book, not story) I ever loved.  I remember feeling awed and afraid to touch it because it was so special that it seemed wrong for grubby little child fingers to hold it.  This is how every single book in this shop made me feel.  So, knowing that I would never be able to own any of them, just being there was some kind of solace.  Gabi laughed at me, cruelly, as I scuttled through the shop having huge amounts of fun  with the old books.

Some of the highlights of my visit were  a first edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, a beautiful hard cover copy of The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell which had an inscription dated from 1931 and an absolutely tiny, metal-bound Book of Common Prayer with tiny print, thin yellow pages, beautiful calligraphy and a tiny metal lock.  It was very Jane Eyre.  I am assured that despite the fact that the shop is already busting with books and cluttered with boxes which are, presumably, filled with more boxes, this is just the beginning.  The owner (who for some reason I think of as St. Philip, though I hear he’s just called Chris) apparently has an entire garage filled with books he has yet to catalogue.  I think there’s something romantic about the idea of a man whose entire life is dedicated to collecting beautiful old books, so much so that he can’t even keep track of them.

Oxford is an undeniably literary city. For some, it evokes Alice Liddell and her Wonderland, others imagine being at Hogwarts and still others imagine sitting in on a lecture with C.S. Lewis or Tolkien.  But what was a pleasant surprise for me was to find that this rich literary culture isn’t confined to the university; it spreads out from there and takes over the shops, the streets and even the buildings, which all seem to have stories of their own to tell.  And it is this pervading book culture that I am using to justify my visit to this unusual bookshop.  While one of the intentions of this project was initially to show that buying books cheaply is still possible outside of the internet, it has become about much more than that.  I have come to treasure bookshops where, regardless of the price range, books are appreciated and St. Philip’s is clearly such a place.  It may be true that the average book-lover who wanders in can’t afford to take home any of these treasures, but I believe that it’s important nonetheless just to know that they’re there.  I am grateful not only to the man who collects and keeps and sells these books, but to the generations that came before him who thought that they would make good presents, who cared enough to keep them in good shape and who simply bothered enough to keep them in their basements, even if they were just collecting dust. So while I dream of one day being able to buy one of these beautiful books, whose pages I’ll turn gently and protect them from grubby little children fingers whenever possible, for now, it’s enough for me just to know that they’re still out there.