Tag Archives: rare books

Hay-on-Wye Booksellers

IMG_1928Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, 13/14 High Town, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5AE

When I visited this lovely bookshop a few weeks ago, the Hay Festival was kicking off.  On the first weekend of the festival, the sun had come out and the streets of this little Welsh town were full of laughter and music.  Hay-on-Wye Booksellers is perfectly situated on the High Street, right at the centre of the action, making it an indispensable part of the Hay-on-Wye experience.

IMG_1948Street musicians and market stalls filled the square outside this shop and tourists, grateful for a bit of good weather, bared their legs and arms lying on the grass in the shadow of the town’s medieval castle.  The atmosphere was decidedly festive, celebratory even, and even those trying to read didn’t seem too annoyed to be distracted by the sounds of this traditional, Starbucks-free High Street.

IMG_1919Inside, the sunlight filtered in through the shop’s wide front windows, bringing the jovial atmosphere but only a tiny bit of the noise with it.  It was perfect.  The two front rooms on the ground floor are filled with classic and contemporary fiction in hardcovers, cheap paperbacks and old antiquarian tomes.  You’ll also see shelf upon shelf of  poetry and children’s books, which include obscure, rare and out of print titles that you’ve never heard of as well as the favourites.  Standing in the centre of the floor is a tower filled of secondhand Penguin paperback editions of classics, which are the staple of any good used bookshop and are usually quite IMG_1915cheap.  The shelf, a stand-alone cube in the middle of the floor, is a perfect symbol for what it is that I love most about bookshops; as you explore one side of it, you never know what interesting new book or person might be waiting for you on the other side.  As you move further back , you find brilliant history and politics selections as well as books about culture, art and music.   Although I love every book, based on the sheer virtue of its being a bound collection of white paper with black type, I am biased to novels and poetry, so I sometimes tend to skim over other sections.  But the other sections here at Hay-on-Wye Booksellers remind you of how much you might miss by doing that, with selected titles prominently displayed with their covers out, enticing readers with promises of distant times and far-off places, or careful IMG_1918and considered analysis of the not-so-distant.  The more I do learn from non-fiction (when I can get my nose out of an escapist novel and pay attention to the real world, that is) the more I’m able to see the bigger pictures behind the well-known little stories that we tell ourselves.  Reading the stories of nations and populations as well as of individual lives can explain and illuminate a single event.  I have found this particularly when reading Middle Eastern literature in a post-9/11 world.  Whether it’s Peter Tomsen’s epic non-fiction work The Wars of Afghanistan or Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows, reading about the world instead of just swallowing media sensationalism gives more depth and breadth to our understanding of the world around us, proving once again, how reading makes us better people.

A few weeks ago I saw this in practice.  I was watching a stage adaptation of To IMG_1927Kill A Mockingbird at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.  As Atticus handed down his now familiar message that ‘you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them’ I wondered how much they had affected my personality since the first time I read the novel at thirteen years old.  In the intermission, I was stuck in the queue behind a terrible woman who was growing not just frustrated but downright angry at the understaffed team of young baristas who were taking just a little bit too long to get her her tea.  It’s astounding how we can sit and watch a play about the importance of empathising with others and then five minutes later, be completely unable to do so.  My point is that books – fiction or non-fiction – can make us better people by asking us to think about things that lie beyond us as individuals.  But only if we actually read them with open hearts and minds and let them make those transformations in us.  And I’m coming down off my soap-box … now.

IMG_1917I know that I’ve praised the wide selection of every bookshop in Hay and probably sound like I’m recycling the same clichéd compliments for all of them, but the most astounding thing about this town is its ability to delight and impress you over and over again each time you walk into a new bookshop.  In this shop in particular, though, as books spill off the shelves and collect in puddles on the floor,  I was struck by the feeling of possibility that this abundance of bookshops and IMG_1911abundance of books gives to the browser. I could learn anything here, be anyone, go anywhere.  It’s the feeling I had going into my grade one classroom for the first time when I was six, or the first time I ever saw Senate House Library in London.  It’s a feeling of awe at how much there is to see and do and read and feel and think in the world and how lucky we are to have books to help us access even just the tiniest little sliver of all of it for ourselves.  It’s a very, very good feeling.

Although this first floor alone might seem overwhelming enough, there’s moreIMG_1926.  Just like in the Poetry Bookshop, this shop has a wall full of books that leads you up the stairs, albeit slowly, since the books provide a bit of a distraction.  As you ascend, you have to try not to block the way too much as you examine the books that lead you from one floor to another. Books are the best guides anyway. Upstairs, when you finally make it, the selection becomes more eclectic.  While I may not personally be interested in a book (let alone an entire shelf) on deer management, I am very glad that such a thing exists.  Although I must admit that I find some of the more specialised topics quite amusing, in all seriousness, I’m relieved to see them there.   I’m reminded once again (as I often am these days) of Murakami’s IMG_1922observation that ‘if you only read what everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking’ which seems to speak to the homogenizing influence of a certain internet giant that tells us what everyone else is buying and suggests that we must therefore buy it too.  The upper floor of this shop also has an excellent selection of more history and art books, as well as philosophy, psychology and theology books and a selection of comic books and graphic novels.  The little windows, somewhat blocked by books, I’ll admit, provide beautiful views of the green and pleasant lands beyond the town, reminding browsers that the outdoors (on sunny days anyway) is a beautiful place to adventure and to read.

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This bookshop, like most of Hay’s, sells mostly secondhand books, with some rare and antiquarian books sprinkled in.  The nature of secondhand bookshops is that their price range is often quite large.  While a paperback copy of The Great Gatsby printed a few years ago with only a few scuffs might go for as low as 50p, IMG_1912a dog-eared, crumpled first edition with a significant ex-libris would cost thousands.  I think there’s something wonderful about that.  Although both copies contain the exact same story, the history embodied in one copy makes its value greater.  The variety which secondhand bookshops provide offers opportunities for everyone to read whatever they want, regardless of how much money they have to spend, while simultaneously asserting that it’s not the beauty of the thing but the collection of stories it represents which is valuable.  Books might be the only commodity in the world that actually become more valuable as they becomes dated, irrelevant, dusty, unattractive and well-used.

This was a welcome reminder for me, since sometimes I feel just a little bit bad about how much I enjoy buying books.  As much as we like to tell ourselves books are special, they’re still just material objects, aren’t they?  They’re things, products, commodities.   Sometimes I ask myself, is building a beautiful library of books just a more socially acceptable form of hoarding?  Is coveting them, feeling sad when I lose them and not being able to bear to leave them behind nothing more than commodity fetishism?

And then I go somewhere like Hay-on-Wye Booksellers and I’m reminded that, although some books are nothing more than products, designed to fill a demand in the market (cough, cough, Twilight-spin-offs), the really good ones are so much more.  If I were to buy an iPod and then drop it, crack it, spill on it, scratch it up and let it become five years out of date, no one would want it anymore.  But the more we love and use and personalise our books, the more they mean to the people to whom we give, lend and bequeath them.

The lovely booksellers (because aren’t all booksellers always lovely) in this large IMG_1913but intimate bookshop reminded me of why it’s okay that we define ourselves by the books we’ve read and why collecting them is somewhat (if only just somewhat) different from any other kind of consumption.  As I listened to the women behind the till chat to each other about the books they’re reading and watched them spend ages walking around the bookshop helping customers, I couldn’t help but wonder how much money they make.  Booksellers aren’t in it for the money.  They’re in it because they love books and they want to share that love, foster it in others and make sure that their favourite stories never stop being told and told and retold and then maybe lost for a while and rediscovered and told once again.  They’re in it because they believe, like I do, that reading makes you a better person, if you would only just let it.

Broad Street Book Centre

IMG_1878Broad Street Book Centre, 6 Broad Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5DB

Now this, my friends, is a proper bookshop.  Housed inside a beautiful Tudor building (or maybe Tudor revival, but I’m not fussy), The Broad Street Book Centre is at the centre of Hay and its dimly-lit windows, wooden floorboards and IMG_1867display of books in the front window draw in many aimless wanderers off the street.  Each inch of wall space and lots of the floor space too is covered with beautiful rare and secondhand books, just waiting for you to come and pick them up.  Many of them are so old and frail, with thin pages, crumbling spines and delicate gold-leaf, that it almost feels unfair to disturb their rest on the walls by picking them up.  But fortunately, the overwhelming message that the shop sends is that this is a place where adventure is allowed, so explore on!

IMG_1876The shop basically consists of what feels like a never-ending string of rooms, which are labelled in the most mystifying system I have ever seen.  I’m sure it makes sense for the owner of the bookshop to say ‘Ah yes, this book needs to go to section A in Room 8b’, but to the average browser, it’s not very helpful.  It is however, charming, so I’ll allow it. And it makes the shop feel a bit like a labyrinth, one where an alternatively benevolent and sadistic overlord gives you hints on how to leave which you never know if you should trust or not.  But the joke’s on him because I’m not trying to leave.  I had to be dragged out in the end, with the gentle admonition that if I spent as much time in every bookshop in Hay as I did in this one, I’d never get through all of them.  Which, in the end, I didn’t.

But if you find yourself scratching your head as  you try to get your head around the somewhat chaotic collection of rooms and books as you make your way through the labyrinth, try to enjoy being lost.  Wandering, in shops like this one, invites a certain wonderful phenomenon: serendipity.  SecondhandIMG_1869 bookshops are one of the best places in  the world for serendipitous moments to happen; indeed, I don’t think any other kind of place is better suited to creating that ‘Well would you look at that!’ feeling.  And that feeling is one of the best feelings we can ever have; it reminds us that despite our efforts to micromanage and control every moment of our days, the world and all its magical possibilities still have the power to surprise us.  It’s a feeling that sadly is becoming less and less common as we not just lose, but freely give up, our ability to accept the random, the unplanned and the unexpected.  Fortunately it is still allowed and even fostered in secondhand bookshops like this one.

IMG_1872One of my favourite rooms in the shop to rummage around in held the children’s section, Folio Society Editions and modern novels. The children’s selection had lots of the contemporary favourites – Harry Potter, Narnia and other secondhand copies of our favourites – but also had many beautiful hardcover children’s books from the 30s and 40s that have been forgotten, including some titles by Enid Blyton that I had never heard of (although I also heard lately that the wrote over 600 children’s books – can you imagine?!) and some very dated storybooks for girls and boys.  The section was colourful and the light from the window just above it made for a bright and pleasant reading area, with a little wooden chair perfect for storytime gatherings, should some ambitious parent decide to try.  On the IMG_1873opposite wall was a brilliant collection of modern first editions, featuring books by writers like Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and all the other darlings of contemporary fiction.  A small selection of these first editions were actually signed by the authors, so they will have been much more expensive, but the rest of the books were affordable.  I would say that for the average paperback novel, you could expect to pay about £5, though many were cheaper than that and a great many of the beautiful rare books were much more expensive.  IMG_1871The final wall of this room was covered in Folio Society Editions of everything from Shakespeare to Chaucer to Arthur Conan Doyle to Emily Bronte.  Some were more expensive than others, again, but most were around £20, making them the perfect gift even if buying one for yourself feels a bit extravagant.  As regular readers know, I love the Folio Society and should probably not go on about them as much as I do, but I will say once again, that they are perfect as presents, particularly if you want to give someone a special copy of a book they love to be kept in a place of honour on their bookshelf.

IMG_1877The shop also has a brilliant collection of CDs, sheet music, history, politics and poetry books and a room that is full of books about the railways.  Because why not, I guess.  I very much doubt that there is anything you couldn’t find in this bookshop, that there is any booklover whose ideal birthday present isn’t lurking at the back of one of its shelves.  And if you’re looking for serendipity or book fate (something I had a great chat about with a bookseller at Richard Booth’s Bookshop – coming up!) this is the place to go.  You’re sure to find a new book, or author, or even genre that you’d never heard of before but won’t be able to get out of your head.

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Which brings me to ‘the one that got away.’  In the fiction section near the front of the shop, I gasped out loud when I discovered a small early edition of Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book.  This is the first in the Scottish writer’s series of twelve books of fairy tales, which collect famous stories like Aladdin and Sleeping Beauty with more obscure ones from all over the world.  This book had IMG_1868a blue hard cover, gold  leaf pages, and a Happy Birthday inscription on the front cover.  And it only cost £6.  Unfortunately, knowing that I had already spent too much money on books on my little trip to Hay, I decided to leave it.  For now.  In a way, seeing it there was more precious to me than actually taking it home.  When I was a little girl I used to take Lang’s Fairy Books out of the library at school after our kind  school librarian suggested one to me and I became completely hooked.  I would borrow them week after week until I had read all of the ones we had in the library several times. And I hadn’t thought about that in about ten years.  Like so many other childhood memories, reading those books has probably formed my personality in many ways and I doubt I would be the person I am without them, but they had slipped into the dark recesses at the back of my mind.  Until, as if a bit of fate or serendipity had followed me all the way to Wales, I saw them sitting on a shelf in the Broad Street Book Centre, and precious memories from years ago came flooding back.

Slightly Foxed Books

Slightly Foxed Books, 123 Gloucester Road, London, SW7 4TE

Slightly Foxed, a charming and quirky name for a charming and quirky shop, is on the site of what used to be the Gloucester Road Bookshop, but was bought out by Slightly Foxed, the equally charming and quirky literary quarterly, several years ago.  Check them out, they’re lovely: http://foxedquarterly.com/

The shop is on one of those quintessential Kensington streets, lined with cafes and restaurants and little boutiques and, like most other things in Kensington, it’s elegant and self-assured and unimposing.  Think of it as the complete antithesis to the giant Waterstone’s at Piccadilly Circus.

The front room of the shop is airy and bright and, in the midst of an inexplicable sunny spell yesterday afternoon, full of light.  When I walked in, the bookseller was sitting quietly behind his desk sorting through stacks that were collecting around him.  He gave me a polite nod and let me get on with my business.  He was one of those booksellers who seems just a little bit protective of his books – he let me meander freely through the shop and didn’t even look at me sideways as I made what was probably my fourth loop around the room, but I felt like he was very much aware of everything that was going on.  That being said, I was a bit afraid to whip out my camera and take a picture of the room, since it seemed to be so peaceful and natural.  So, I’ve had to steal one from http://www.thebookseller.com and hope you’ll forgive me.  It’s probably going to be a refreshingly professional-looking picture, actually.  If you’re interested, The Bookseller has a great article about Slightly Foxed that shouldn’t be too tricky to find.

With the bookseller’s watchful eye on the back of my head, I ran my fingers along the spines of the stunning collection of secondhand books on offer.  The shop sells a combination of old and new books, so browsing in there is really quite a varied experience.

Among the new books, the highlights were a signed (signed!) copy of Salman Rushdie’s new autobiography Joseph Anton: A Memoir which I’m dying to buy but it’s hardcover and expensive, and  a very interesting new publication of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, which featured Ethan Frome comic strips on the inside flaps and which I’ve been unable to locate anywhere on the internet.  Touché, Mr. Fox.

The older books, though, were the real treasures.  I’ve heard a rumor that this bookshop sells books that range between £1 and £15,000.  I didn’t spot any that were on the higher end of the scale, but I can certainly imagine some secret masterpiece hiding in plain view somewhere on these perfectly organised walls. Fortunately, most of the books are closer to the £1 end of the scale.  I took home two new treasures.

The first was a hardcover copy of Dylan Thomas: The Collected Poems, 1934 – 1952, published in 1959 by J.M. Dent & Sons.  On the leaf opposite the cover page is a painting of Dylan Thomas by Augustus John, in which he has a serious expression, a curly head of hair and very fashionable scarf.  He reminds me of my brother Harry.  The real reason I bought the book is because of the inscription on the inside front cover which is written in beautiful handwriting, “To Ben, with love for Christmas – from Sheryl, 1959”.  Anyone have any thoughts on the story there?  What is so brilliant about inscriptions in books is that I can imagine it.  Maybe they were friends who loved to talk about books.  Or co-workers in a mundane job who resorted to talking about poetry to make the hours pass. Maybe Sheryl’s lifelong mission was to get her little brother Ben to stop thinking about the stock market and read some poetry!  Maybe they are a couple about to divorce spending their last Christmas together and Sheryl wants Ben to read Thomas’ poem “On A Wedding Anniversary”, on p. 124 of this edition, because it sums up the way she feels better than she can.

Sorry, I spun off there for a moment.  I bought the Dylan Thomas book for £8.50.  However, take note that if you want to pay by card at Slightly Foxed you have to spend over £10.  The bookseller quickly told me that there’s a cashpoint just down the road, but I jumped at the excuse to buy another book.

The second book I bought was a 1976 Andre Deutsch edition of Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark.  I was drawn to it because the dust jacket has a beautiful, colourful painting designed by someone called Barbara Brown of a lonely woman standing in a 20s style bar in London or Paris, surrounded by beautiful people and gold trim on majestic arches and potted plants everywhere.  There were actually also copies of Good Morning, Midnight and one other Rhys novel,  it may have been Wide Sargasso Sea, but I can’t quite remember, with similar illustrations by Brown.  I can’t tell you how much I wanted all three, but they were £10 each so I went for Voyage in the Dark.  It’s gorgeous, but it doesn’t quite seem right without the others.

There is also a basement, filled with more secondhand books on subjects like History, Philosophy and Biography.  When I headed down to see the rest of the books, I noticed a sign above the door that said bags were not allowed downstairs and were to be left at the desk.  This is a strange peculiarity of London bookshops and I’m not sure what to make of it.  Most bookshops with multiple floors have a similar sign but it seems that only tourists obey them.  I’ve often blatantly ignored the signs and gone down with my bags and surprisingly, no pack of rabid dogs has attacked me and I haven’t had a single harsh word from a bookseller yet.  And whenever I ask if I need to leave my bag, they usually tell me not to worry about it.  I can’t figure this little oddity out.  Maybe it’s  more a way of warning people not to steal books than an actual rule, but I like to think that it’s some kind of social experiment the booksellers do to pass the time; what kind of person will leave their bag; what kind of person won’t?  Enough about that.

Some of the favourites among the books that I found downstairs were a used book about the original St. Paul’s Cathedral that stood at the top of Ludgate Circus before it was burnt down and rebuilt by Christopher Wren as the landmark we know today. There was another book about Jack the Ripper and the East London of his day, which I found particularly appealing since I used to live around the corner from where he killed one of his victims.  That’s not something the estate agents tell you.   I also saw a book from 1928 by George Bernard Shaw called The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, which apparently was born out of a conversation Shaw had with his sister-in-law who wondered why women weren’t being included in the political discourse of the time and wanted to know more!  He had a very funny phrase in his introduction which was something along the lines of “this book is an inadequate answer to my sister-in-law’s perfectly adequate question”, but his version was better than that.  I particularly liked the wide selection of literary biographies, covering people like Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley, Wordsworth and Samuel Johnson.

I’ve rambled about this bookshop for quite some time now, so I’ll conclude.  I love this bookshop. I love the location, the physical space and the quirky characters in it.  But what I love most about it is that unlike the bigger chain bookshops you see most often today (I’ll recall that comparison to the Piccadilly Waterstone’s), there are no extra gimmicks, no flashy displays, no attempts to make everything better or newer or faster or bigger.  Slightly Foxed, like any good bookshop, is nothing more than a nice space where you can think about books.

Just books.

Not what they can do for you, not how fast you can get them, not how many you can have at once and not what cross-promotional products you “need” to buy to enhance your experience of them.

Just books.  Just the fact that they’re still there, they’re still carrying our stories.

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.