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...
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