RARE BOOK GUIDE - THE RUNNERS, THE RIDERS & THE ODDS

17 June 2010

Lost Bookshops

‘Ralph the Books’, Swansea ( fl. 1930 – ca. 2007 )


As a schoolboy collector in Wales this was the shop that encouraged my early bibliomania. It was, of course, the bookshop to which Dylan Thomas ( who was the best-known old boy of my school ) sold the review copies for which he had no further use.
Ralph Wishart (1911 – 75) became a friend of the poet and was, no doubt plagued by American academics and young, earnest thesis writers. His shop—if indeed it was the one that Thomas visited—for there was another, much smaller one near the station at the other end of town—was a double fronted, bay windowed affair which went back a long way from the busy street . In each window there was always a display of what were considered to be the more striking books for sale, though these were not necessarily the most expensive. Welsh bibles, bible commentaries, books of sermons and other dull staples of the Welsh book trade of that time often served as stands for more modern, jacketed works on art or travel or whatever. Everything, including the books, seemed coated with dust and the books looked grubby and faded , though the windows were clean enough, but hardly sparkling. Entering the shop one’s impression was of books crowding every surface, even the long counter and under the counter too. On the left wall could be found dull books on Geography and adjoining the shelves small, cheaper books of all kinds were stuffed into a free-standing carousel. Opposite, exactly behind where stood Ralph or his brother—a lugubrious figure permanently clothed in a grubby grey overall-- lurked the best stock, which might have included recondite works in Welsh, modern firsts, cased late Georgian maps, Victorian illustrated books, leather bound antiquarian books on all subjects, and pamphlets. Getting to examine these choice items took a good deal of courage and guile. The space to manoeuvre behind the counter was so limited that placing oneself in a position to examine this stock comfortably involved shoving aside the shopkeeper. I was so conscious of usurping his space that I never felt happy as a browser here—and Ralph or his brother seemed unwilling to accommodate me. [Only available pic of the bookshop, an interior, on left.]

On the shelves next to the best books was the large, deeply dull-looking poetry section. I invariably made a beeline for these shelves in the vain hope of finding some forgotten slim volume from the twenties or thirties among the dross. I soon realised that this was not the place to locate anything of any appeal, and indeed it would seem that books hardly moved from here . I clearly remember seeing one slim volume called Wildtrack remain there for ten years or longer, though in Ralph’s such a non-movement was commonplace. Halfway down the shop on the right was Ralph’s cubby hole, where he presumably stored the books before they were shelved, but where everyone suspected he kept the really expensive stock. People were occasionally invited in for a chat , but not me. Maybe because I was not one of his long-standing collectors or a supporter of Swansea Town. I suspected it was because I was English. In Wales at that time there was a lot of anti-English feeling.

I used to visit the shop each time I came home from University and it always seemed much the same from when I had last seen it. And when I last looked around it in 2002, a few years before it closed for good, it had hardly changed since I had bought my first book there in 1968 . The back of the shop was twice the size of the front and was essentially a cold, dank, ill-lit warehouse with books jammed in from floor to ceiling and an island of books in the centre. Here were stocked all the cheaper fiction, from the classics to forgotten novelists of the late Victorian period onwards---Meredith, Marie Correlli, Dornford Yates, Annie Swan Warwick Deeping, Walpole, Priestley--- with nothing priced at more than 5 shillings or the equivalent. When it rained the roof leaked, showering boxes of books with droplets and creating nasty puddles on the uneven, cobbled floor. But Ralph and his successors never seemed bothered about this threat to their stock. Upstairs were the books in Welsh and the religious works—thousands
and thousands of them, many in attractive leather bindings—and I could never work out if the Welsh books were also religious in nature, despite having studied the language for two terms at school.

At the time it was easy to dismiss much of Ralph’s stock as irrelevant or just plain dowdy. He never seemed to prune the dead wood and I can’t remember if there was ever a bargain box or bargain shelves. But Wales has always been a happy hunting ground for book collectors --especially the larger towns and those with Universities ( ask Richard Booth ) -—and among the dross in Ralph’s shelves could be found books of real rarity. For instance, I bought here a scarce 6 volume pirated edition by Donaldson of Pope’s Works dated 1767, in light calf, which Ralph let me have for £1 17s 6d because, according to him, a rat had chewed off a corner of volume 6. And around 1970 I acquired for ten shillings volume two (July- December 1820) of the exceptionally rare Gold’s London Magazine, which I have never seen again for sale in 40 years of searching in shops and on the Net. This lucky buy introduced me to the writings of the brilliant parodist William Frederick Deacon, whose Warreniana is now recognised as one of the greatest works of its type. I have written and lectured widely on Deacon over the years and even wrote his entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography—and all of this I put down to Ralph’s.

Ralph died in 1975 and his brother retired soon afterward, leaving the shop in the hands of a peculiarly charmless younger man, who I was later told, was the son of Vernon Watkins’ cleaner. I don’t know whether this was true, but I do know that the shop was never the same exciting hunting ground in the twenty odd years that he presided over it. [ R.M.Healey]

Thanks Robin. Many of us carry around a lost bookshop in our hearts. For me it was the rambling old bookshop William Smith at Reading. I heard it burnt down about 40 years ago. That is where I first got the taste for finding old and forgotten books. Charles Knight's evocative title 'Shadows of the the Old Booksellers' (1865) comes to mind, although that is mostly biographies of eighteenth-century London publisher-booksellers. It would be good to hear from others of any lost bookshops, I know Robin has more...I have fond memories of the second hand bookshop on the Beach Road in Felixstowe that closed about 30 years back, many a 'sleeper' found there...

11 comments:

Post Mortem Books said...

Not so much a "lost" bookshop but certainly one that I can remember - not necessarily with the greatest of affection. Goulden's of Eastbourne (and then East Grinstead). Both shops were curiously designed with a large counter right across the shop so that 4/5ths of the stock was BEHIND the counter and unless one had the sharpest of visions over 30 feet none of the book titles was readable. On enquiring about this stock one was invariably asked if you were "trade". I made the mistake of replying in the affirmative and was told that "this stock is reserved" but that the few shelves on my side of the counter were available for sale. As this was invariably tat I made my excuses and left. The Eastbourne shop closed and re-surfaced, surprisingly, in East Grinstead. I visited one day and spotted a dustwrappered 1930's Agatha Christie behind the proprietor's head. I asked if I could see it but he remembered me as "trade" and I got the usual reply - "these titles are reserved."
Not one to give up too easily I waited, Third Man-like, in a darkened doorway nearby. The lunch hour approached and I spotted Mr G leaving the shop. He had an assistant to take over for an hour! I shot back to the shop, nonchalantly wandered in and browsed for a few moments amongst the tat and then made out that I had just spotted the Christie item on the other side of the counter. Asked to see it. OK, said the young fellow, and handed it over. £10 for a dustwrappered first of Death on the Nile. Had to hum and hah a little bit while keeping an eye on the door in case Mr G should return early. Handed over the cash and exited smartish. I always wondered what the conversation was when the owner got back and discovered that his assistant had actually sold a book from the "reserve" stock.
The shop closed soon after and Mr G disappeared. He was the brother of Henry Goulden who had a shop in Rye and must have been connected with that first-class new bookshop Goulden and Curry of Tunbridge Wells (now sadly lost as well - although Helen Kennedy, the buyer there set up Kennedy and Farley, a secondhand book business from their home).

Bookride said...

Thanks for that PM! A classic anecdote reminding me of the old adage about booksellers-'When they are not punching themselves in the face, they are shooting themselves in the foot.'The late Bill Hoffer, praise his name, used to define a book dealer as a person 'who solves problems caused by books.' But really it's so often the dealer who is the problem...

Anonymous said...

I was working at William Smith Boosellers of Reading in 1973 when a fire gutted most of the antiquarian and secondhand department (It weren't me guv, honest!).
Sadly lack of adequate insurance meant that it was never restored to it's orginal state and was eventually reduced to a couple of rooms above the 'Long Room'.
Geoff Lilley presided over the department. Regarded by most of the staff as a curmudgeonly old git, I got along with him very well. Latterly the affable David Hutchings took over until the place closed in 1990 (or thereabouts)

Roger said...

Two lost bookshops in Oxford: Thorntons,in Broad Street which had obscure and remote corridors, until they were closed by the Health and Safety Inspectorate in the 1970s and the size of the shop halved, and Waterfields, whichmust have been the largest second-hand bookshop in the U.K. in its prime- there were constant fights to get the ladders to look at the upper shelves.

Post Mortem Books said...

Your comment, Roger, about Waterfield's and the vertiginous shelving reminds me of the occasion sometime in the 80's when I was in town to see Colin Dexter. Never one to miss an opportunity to trawl the bookshops I clambered up to the first floor of Waterfield's to check out the fiction. The very top shelves must have been a good 15 feet above the floor and by chance the "D" part of the alphabet began on the very top shelf. I spotted Dexter's first title "Last Bus to Woodstock" and even though I couldn't quite see the colophon on the base of the spine I guessed it was probably a Book Club edition (same spine design as the Macmillan first but would have had BCA as the colophon - worthless). There were no ladders about so I continued browsing - with little to find. I returned to the "D" section - this was bugging me. I needed to check that Dexter title, just in case. No ladders, so no option but to start climbing then. I made it to the very top, hoping against hope no bookshop assistant would see me crawling Spiderman-like up the shelves. Pulled out the Dexter and bingo! Macmillan, first edition. £3.50.
I'm ashamed to say I rubbed out the price in the car and presented it to Colin to sign half an hour later. I did keep it in my own collection for some years - before flogging it for a suitably extortionate amount (and before the pages finally darkened and crumbled).

Post Mortem Books said...

Stand in Boscombe bus station and look due east towards the ugly newish building opposite the roundabout. This used to be the site of the mammoth Ashley Bookshop housed in a redundant church, run as far as I can remember, by two ladies. The size of the stock was staggering and overflowed into the back rooms, presumably the sacristy and gowning areas as well as into the gallery seats. Unfortunately the stock was pretty mediocre and despite numerous visits over a period of 15 years I rarely came away with much in my field of crime fiction. Just once, I struck gold. The shop had recently acquired the library of the late John Creasey who had lived in the Bournemouth area and there were row upon row of his titles, duplicated and triplicated and all in mint condition. Author's copies. Boscombe and Bournemouth used to provide a fair number of good shops - now all lost.

Anonymous said...

Ah Bournemouth! Who gets all the books now. Moving along to Eastbourne, God's waiting room, does anybody remember the bookshop opposite what is now Camilla's run by a rather austere individual Mr Smith? Gave 10% discount only with a trade card. Good books and not excessive pricewise. Bexhill also had a useful bookshop on the front run by an oddish older woman. If you want good books head to the coast!

Post Mortem Books said...

Bournemouth: For a brief period in the not too distant past there was a secondhand bookshop close by the very centre of town - just round the corner from Richmond Hill. An intriguing mode d'emploi was installed. None of the books was priced. If you were interested you took the book to the counter and the owner scampered off with it behind the scenes. What he was doing was checking against internet listings and then pricing - as far as I could tell on the sole occasion I was interested in purchasing from him - at the highest level. I would refer you back to Nigel's comment on this blog. Sometimes you can't just help sellers who are intent on shooting themselves in both feet.
There must still be vast libraries of books tucked away in the monied houses of Sandbanks and Poole - but presumably no-one around to suck them in.

Michael John Thompson, Sometime Bookseller said...

Nice to see Hoffer's name mentioned here, but did he ever really solve that many problems caused by books? He used to repeat that line to me endlessly, but having just spent a month delving through the depths of Serendipity's warehouse and seeing the dregs of every book collection Hoffer ever bought randomly shelved amidst the chaos - well. God rest his soul, he was one of my best friends, but I don't think he managed to solve more problems then he created. /mjt

R.M.Healey said...

Readers might like to know that two years ago I acquired W.F.Deacon's even rarer magazine, The Dejeune (October to December 1820), of which only around 5 copies are known in public collections around the world.For this I had to go to Ohio, via the Net, and it did cost a little more than ten shillings--£70 I think.But well worth the price, considering its astonishing rarity and the growing appreciation of Deacon as a gifted serio-comic writer ( see abebooks).

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