J D Davies

Stasis Revisited: Part Two

So now, as promised in Monday’s Part 1, here’s my utterly personal and idiosyncratic ‘top five’ of UK secondhand bookshops. As in the previous post, everything in black font after the section break below is material originally posted five years ago, when I only produced a top three; everything in red is brand new, and some of it was inspired by my recent break in Galloway, which also saw me ‘raid’ two of the UK’s booktowns, Scotland’s at Wigtown and England’s at Sedbergh.

So here goes…


In the original version of this post, I gave honourable runner-up mentions to Dunkeld Antiques, Ystwyth Books in Aberystwyth and Eric T Moore in Hitchin, but the first and last of those have now gone (although Eric T Moore is still a going concern online, and does regular ‘pop-up shops’ at events in the area). To replace them, I’ll bring in Carmarthen Rare Books, one of my principal sources for obscure Welsh history tomes, and David’s Books in Letchworth, which comes with the bonuses of a big floor of new books downstairs plus its own music shop with a decent selection of classical CDs. Westwood Books in Sedbergh, the star find of my recent trip, also runs the Top Five close – a big, airy shop with comfy sofas and easily the best arranged History section I’ve ever come across in a secondhand bookshop, i.e. absolutely perfect chronological order (in marked contrast to a certain unnamed big bookshop in Hay-on-Wye which has a vast History section, but where the books are in totally random order, making it probably the only place on the planet where Hitler rubs shoulders with Hildegard of Bingen). On the other hand, Westwood is just too organised for a secondhand shop, as the History section suggests…it makes London’s legendary, and now clinically laid out, bookshop, Foyles, seem random and untidy, which, of course, is what the much-missed previous incarnation of Foyles was actually like (not to mention its extraordinarily idiosyncratic method of paying for the books, where you picked up a docket naming your book from one desk and took it to another where you could actually pay).

Some may be surprised that I haven’t included in my Top Five the vast megastores of the secondhand bookshop world, notably the three biggest shops in the UK, the Hay Cinema bookshop (biggest of all, and not the one mentioned in the previous paragraph), Barter Books in Alnwick (an utter delight housed in a former Victorian railway station) and Baggins Book Bazaar in Rochester, which, of course, wins the ‘greatest secondhand bookshop name of all’ competition hands down. Don’t get me wrong, I love all three of these, have spent many hours, and, indeed, many pounds in them – but the problem with them all is that they’re simply too big. In most secondhand bookshops, for example, you know that a decent browse of the History section is usually going to take you between 10 and 30 minutes. At Hay Cinema, though, and to an extent at the other two, a similar exercise means that you’ll probably miss lunch and will be lucky to make dinner, and that’s without attempting to explore any other sections at all. 

You’ll also notice that I haven’t included any secondhand bookshops in London, despite the fact that there are many glorious ones; my personal favourite is the one in Kew, just round the corner from the National Archives. But the problem with secondhand bookshops in London is pretty much exactly the same as the problem with trying to buy a house in London. I’ve also omitted the very few remaining specialist naval and maritime shops because they are, collectively, Nirvana, and thus on an entirely different astral plane. On the other hand, I hardly ever buy anything in them these days, for the reasons I outlined in Part 1 of this post; not to mention the fact that I sometimes buy something I’m convinced I don’t have, only to get home and find it already sitting on my shelves.

All of that said, then, here’s my completely subjective ‘top five’ of the secondhand bookshops in the UK that I happen to have been to. 

5/ 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.

(The last sentence was written long before the pub closed; it’s meant to be reopening some time, or so the brewery says. When it does, the Brazen Head might climb the chart!) 

4/ Ross Old Books – There are navigational tools that are more powerful than SatNav. One of these kicks in whenever I come off the M50 and see the signs to Ross-on-Wye. ‘Turn left’, says a voice. ‘Turn left and look at nice books,’ it says. ‘Buy nice books,’ it says, ‘if you turn left’. And so, yes, sometimes (but not always, because I have willpower), I turn left. Ross is a gorgeous town anyway, but its secondhand bookshop is a delight, with really friendly staff and a surprisingly strong naval and maritime history section, where I often find something that I never knew existed. The other thing that always tickles me in Ross is that it must possess one of the least notable blue plaques in Britain. OK, it commemorates Nelson, which is an obvious plus in my book. But commemorates what, you ask? Did Nelson explain his battle plan for the Nile there? No. Did he bonk Lady Hamilton there? No. (Well, maybe he did, but people turned a blind eye. Boom, tsh.) Did he ask Hardy to kiss him there? No. (Ditto.) Did he simply go for a walk in a garden there, and that’s thought worthy of a blue plaque? Oh yes.

3/ Edinburgh – OK, yes, I’ve copped out here. There are a lot of wonderful secondhand bookshops in Edinburgh. There are also a lot of wonderful pubs in Edinburgh. If one maps out one’s day properly, one can go from bookshop to pub to bookshop… I’m not actually saying I can’t remember which is my favourite Edinburgh bookshop, but there’sh alsho a very nyshe cashtle on top of a really, really, really big hill, too. Really really big. Cashtle. Big. Booksh. Pubsh. More booksh.

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 (maybe not – remember this paragraph was originally written five years ago), 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 (principal claim to fame – the Rev. Richard Coles is the vicar), which itself is fiendishly difficult to find in Northamptonshire, which in turn, if you’re one of my American or Australian or [insert nationality of choice] readers, is fiendishly difficult to find in the UK. 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…

And strangely enough, here we are, almost exactly five years later, and I urgently need to go and undertake an identical exercise!