Caught by the River


Mathew Clayton | 14th September 2011

Dear Jeff,
I think the readers of CBTR will enjoy this. It is the first chapter of a very fine book written by John Shire called Bookends: a partial history of the Brighton book trade. Whilst at first this might seem a little parochial the story it tells could be about any city in Britain. It explores the history of the town’s bookshops with particular emphasis on the second hand ones – but it is just bloody great.
Mathew (Clayton)

p.s. The picture is the storehouse at the back of the NF Brookes.

by John Shire.

Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationery store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!
– Walter Benjamin

In 2002, number 12 Queen’s Road, a black and green relic, gave up its books for the last time.
Now yet another small café, this tall thin building remained undecorated for years, overshadowed by the constantly changing name and décor of the pub next door. It had been the original bookshop of the legendary N.F. Brookes but the place had been closed for many months and, as far as I could tell, only used as storage for the larger and more recently-closed two-unit shop on the other side of the road. Now, however, a few people were going in and out, armed to the teeth, possibly even the back teeth, with books. Intrigued, I crossed the road to investigate.

“I can’t bear destroying books,” said the man charged with clearing the place up for new occupiers, “So help yourself. Honestly, take what you want.”

The first part goes without saying: who would consciously align themselves with the book-burners of this world after all? The second is a magical, almost unimaginable, sentiment for a bibliophile to hear. Naturally, I had been in here before. The original Brookes shop was of the traditional kind: uninviting to most and deliberately challenging to a few. By that I mean that it presented a surface of chaos and a tantalising depth of incalculable value. At least that’s what you hoped. At the rear of the front room, narrow stairs led to two upper floors packed with books. Initially at least, and certainly to the uninitiated, the books were unconscionably confused. But that doesn’t matter. Find the one that catches your eye and then move on, bouncing around like some short-lived sub-atomic particle, fetched up for a few fleeting moments in a massive cloud chamber. Of course you always knew that there was a secret order to be found if you simply knew how to look. Or the occult remnants of what had once been order.

Now though, without an owner and undoubtedly marked for redevelopment, things had taken on a despairing aspect. Aside from a few other opportunist vultures like me, the shop was largely empty. What was left was twisted and water-damaged, the books on jerry-built shelves, falling over themselves with no support from companions. Looking out of the small windows on the back stairs, I remembered seeing cramped ancient outhouses, possibly medieval in origin, full to the ceiling with boxes of repeated titles, remainders bought for a pittance at auction and becoming increasingly unsalable with each passing year. These still remained, I noticed. Not even the hardiest would dare venture into those nether regions. Probably the back door wouldn’t open. I imagined grim philistines shovelling this literary waste into a skip.

The basement was the worst. Down there, even before the closure, awful things had surely been left to fester. Stepping off the stairs into the gloom there was no sign of a floor. Instead books and papers up to three feet thick provided a dank carpet of mossy, unread words. It was miserable. But we soldiered on regardless, scavenging, looking for that unnoticed diamond in the mud. I found half a complete bibliography of Hermann Hesse, an eighteenth-century leather-bound history of Greek tyrants, several copies of the memoir Queens by ‘Pickles’, a local gay celebrity from the eighties, then, separately and on different days, a complete two-part monograph on the archaeological excavations of Easter Island, a series of Maggs Brothers (London antiquarian book dealers) catalogues of Incunabula from the 1930’s, a modern history of Western Architecture and a book that is, in 2009, exactly one hundred years old. It is the History of Ibn Miskawayh in the E.J.W. Gibb Memorial series, volume VII, I. It is a facsimile edition. It is in Arabic script.

I cannot read Arabic. The preface (by the Principe di Teano) tells me what period the history covers and something about the author but still, I cannot read Arabic.
It doesn’t matter. That’s what second-hand bookshops do for you. If you don’t understand that, then I’m afraid you’ve picked up the wrong book. Dismayed and disconcerted by the disorder and complexity of the majority of second-hand bookshops, it is perfectly understandable why they are not everyone’s cup of tea. And it is rare that attitudes and presentation conform to modern notions of customer service. One can need guts and determination to successfully negotiate certain establishments. That, for some, is all part of the fun, the thrill of the chase, more “hawks and vultures” than browsing sheep . Those who work in bookshops, as George Orwell did for a time, can generally give as good as they get too.

First edition snobs were much commoner than lovers of literature, but oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks were commoner still, and vague-minded women looking for birthday presents for their nephews were commonest of all.
-George Orwell

But the bookseller’s shop, I must tell all about it,
The place would be dull as a dunghill without it.

– Mr G.S. Carey in The Tagg
or Brighthelmstone Guide 1777

How books and booksellers are welcomed and supported by local inhabitants can say a great deal about a town. The books of Brighton have a significant but awkward history in this respect, with embarrassments and achievements in equal measure. In his younger days during the late nineteenth century the novelist John Cowper Powys stayed in and around the town, long before he began to write his monumental West Country novels. His memoirs provide invaluable information about the retailers of his time. To put it mildly, his passion for bookshops was quite intense:

But one thing is certain. Though books, as Milton says, may be the embalming of mighty spirits, they are also the resurrection of rebellious, reactionary, fantastical and wicked spirits! In books dwell all the demons and all the angels of the human mind. It is for this reason that a bookshop – especially a second-hand bookshop – is an arsenal of explosives, an armoury of revolutions, an opium-den of reactions…

In a second-hand bookshop are the horns of the altar where all the outlawed thoughts of humanity can take refuge! Here, like desperate bandits, hide all the reckless progeny of our wild, dark, self-lacerating hearts. A bookshop is a powder-magazine, a dynamite-shed, a drug-store of poisons, a bar of intoxicants, a den of opiates, an island of Sirens. – Cowper Powys – The Pleasures of Literature 1938

These days I doubt that many folks would make the connection between his gushing, poetical suggestions of sex, drugs and revolutionary terrorism and any kind of bookshop they are likely to have encountered. But you’ve got to love that kind of wild potential. If only they were really that interesting…

In the face of e-books, i-pads, short attention spans, face-book, dwindling resources and never enough room or time, books are under increasing pressure from all directions. Their life cycle is not what it was. A glance around Waterstone’s or a supermarket will tell you that there are more books born now than ever before. But they are also more likely to lead short and, on the whole, unrewarding lives. Many are now delivered directly onto the internet as instant ghosts, cutting out that old-fashioned middle stage of corporeality. Immortality is cheap now and what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and lose his soul? But this doesn’t matter; books are just things, tools to be used up and discarded. Aren’t they? Am I asking too many rhetorical questions?

Books used to go from publication to bookshops to bookshelves to second-hand status and back to bookshelves, disappearing into dusty oblivion at odd moments en route. With the rise of internet selling and the subsequent loss of many actual second-hand bookshops, books may well ride this merry-go-round for longer than ever. But once again, there are so many- too many- and they will end up pulped and skipped, ignored and unloved. The extremes are here.

So on the cusp of what may be yet another publishing revolution, another painful evolution in the presentation of the printed word; here is a book about one small city, its bookshops and their inhabitants.


BOOKENDS: A Partial History of the Brighton Book Trade by John Shire is available from all major bookshops in Brighton, including Colin Page and Sandpiper Books, on the net from Amazon (via bibliomancy) and for perusal in Brighton and Hove Libraries and the Brighton History Centre.

A date for your diaries: The Smallest Bookshop in Brighton (downstairs at Fanny’s Café & Deli, 135 Islingword Road, Brighton) is getting bigger for a day! Hundreds of extra books with coffee and cake on SATURDAY 24th September. Tell your friends, come along, say hello.

Both BOOKENDS and SMALLEST BOOKSHOP have their own facebook pages…