A strange thing happens to me in secondhand bookshops these days. Time was when I couldn’t go into one without leaving laden down with books. Now, though, I invariably browse the shelves and think ‘got that…got that…don’t need that…got that…’. I used to have a lengthy ‘wants list’ on Abebooks, but now it’s virtually empty. So at some point in the last few years, I clearly attained a bookish version of a state of statis. There are three obvious reasons for this. Firstly, I’ve now finally got all the books I need for my day-to-day research on my own shelves – and plenty more besides. Calendars of State Papers, Domestic? Check – vast green volumes, most of which I bought for a pittance in Hay-on-Wye many years ago. Even the incredibly rare Historical Manuscripts Commission Ormonde Manuscripts, New Series – all eight huge volumes worth? Check – bought from a bookshop in Galway a few years ago, with yours truly getting in just before two other potential purchasers who were slightly less quick off the mark. And so on: the complete Pepys Diary, dozens of Navy Records Society volumes, etcetera, etcetera. Secondly, my switch to becoming primarily a writer of fiction means I don’t need so many really obscure books anyway: at the end of the day, do I really, really need all those volumes of HMC Ormonde? Ah, but then, one of the ideas on the ‘unbelievably long term possible projects list’ is a biography of Thomas, Earl of Ossory, for which the HMC volumes would be essential, so they’d better stay just in case I decide to write that book in 10 years time… Thirdly, of course, there’s the space issue. The Lair has reached a state of stasis by default: it’s full. There’s an Overflow Lair in the house, and that’s almost full too. Not to mention the stuff that’s been relegated to the loft. So there’s the concern that just one more book, even the slimmest paperback, would have an effect similar to that last After Eight mint on Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life; which is one reason why quite a few, but still by no means all, of my purchases in the category ‘mindless fiction to chill out to’ go onto the Kindle. Hang on, though. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, are now all online…as are the Navy Records Society volumes…so couldn’t I free up a huge amount of shelf space and make a fair bit of money by getting rid of them? Ah, but they look so good on the shelves…and there’s something particularly satisfying about opening an ancient tome to check a reference in it…and they’re like old friends, really…
But there’s another factor that partly explains the drying up of the once-constant flow of books into my tender loving care and onto my straining bookshelves. In the last ten years or so, many of my favourite secondhand bookshops have bitten the dust. There used to be a glorious one in Stourport-on-Severn, the Worcestershire canal town from which one set of my great-grandparents hailed, which for some reason always had a terrific range of naval books and really good fiction first editions in nearly mint condition. There was another in Bridge of Allan near Stirling, where I picked up for a song many of the books upon which I based much of the research for Blood of Kings. Less salubrious, but always worth spending an hour in, was the ramshackle old bookshop in Dillwyn Street, Swansea, which had a vast, dark, damp back room, truly a land that Health and Safety forgot, where I picked up many classic titles, some of which were even free of mould; a few have survived long enough to still find a place on my shelves today, notably the more obscure sequels to The Three Musketeers, such as Louise de la Valliere and The Viscomte de Bragelonne.
But enough nostalgia; not only is the past a foreign country, you can’t obtain an entry visa for love nor money. There are still some amazing secondhand bookshops around the country, though: honourable runner-up mentions to Dunkeld Antiques, Ystwyth Books in Aberystwyth and Eric Moore in Hitchin, but here’s my completely subjective ‘top three’ –
3/ The Brazen Head Bookshop, Burnham Market, Norfolk – So here’s a recipe for a perfect day for anyone who loves the sea and naval history: morning, walking along the vast and frequently empty Holkham Beach; early afternoon and a couple of miles away, browsing in the Brazen Head, a wonderful old building which always has a great stock of naval and historical books as well as an excellent local history section; late afternoon into evening, paying respects to Nelson in the church at nearby Burnham Thorpe, where his father was rector and lies buried along with various other family members, followed by food and drink in the Lord Nelson pub, one of the comparatively few in Britain that still has no bar and where Nelson allegedly entertained his neighbours on his last night before setting out to take command of the Agamemnon in 1794. Bliss.
2/ Pennyfarthing, North Berwick – The words ‘quirky’ and ‘eclectic’ might have been invented for this place. North Berwick in East Lothian is always worth spending time in: it has another of my favourite beaches, one of my favourite whisky shops, and just down the road is my joint favourite castle, Tantallon. (The other, before anyone asks, is Carreg Cennen in Carmarthenshire.) And then there’s Pennyfarthing, barely a stone’s throw from the ruins of the old kirk where the notorious witch trials of 1590 took place. An odd range of antiques rubs shoulders with a weird and wonderful stock of books, with Scottish history shelves that always contain titles of interest, and a top shelf which houses Nigel Tranter first editions, including occasionally some signed ones (he lived just a few miles down the coast). I’m not sure if it’s still the case, but until fairly recently Pennyfarthing also had a strong candidate for the oldest and deafest shop assistant in the country!
1/ Harrowden Books of Finedon – This is how secondhand bookshops should be. Small but densely packed with a wonderful range of books, a highly knowledgeable and friendly owner who’s always looking to try out new ideas (e.g. ghost walks!) and to freshen things up, rather than presiding over the same old stock in the same old places on the shelves from one year to the next, as is the case in so many shops – but before you all rush up there and crush Mike in the stampede, you need to plan your expedition with military precision, for the shop is fiendishly difficult to find in Finedon, which itself is fiendishly difficult to find in Northamptonshire, which in turn is fiendishly difficult to find in the UK if you’re one of my American or Australian readers. But for those wishing to make a day of it, Harrowden Books can be the pinnacle of a glorious ‘golden triangle’ of bookshop touring, taking in the excellent shops in Uppingham and Stamford on the way to the delights of Finedon.
Oh well, enough for today – time to go and figure out how I can try to free up some space for the books that are likely to come my way at Christmas…
Next week will be my final blog post of 2012, and it’ll be a 17th century naval seasonal special!