Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Watty likes bookshops

Which is probably not going to come as any sort of surprise. Let me introduce you to one of the finest anywhere in the world. (Yes, this is a second-hand bookshop. Are there any other kinds?)

Picture the archetypal English village - duckpond, village green, quaint cottages, rustic-looking pub; you get the idea. Now add to this a curiously historic-sounding name - Penn (I don't think it's anything to do with William Penn, who came from Chorleywood, but you never know. I'll do the multimap thing here, shall I? The extraordinarily pleasant village of Penn. Now, to complete this picture, tucked away in a quiet lane, opposite the kind of print and antiquarian book shop which weighs your wallet before you're allowed in, is the Cottage Bookshop. You like the sound of it already, don't you?

Let us go in. Ignoring the books for a moment, let's just consider the environment: low ceilings; creaking floorboards; rooms leading off rooms with sudden, unexpected staircases in them; a whole other floor upstairs with even more labyrinthine corridors and creaking floors. Still with me? Now imagine this filled with bookshelves. Not just along every wall - although there are, indeed, no visible walls - but also freestanding units in every room, carefully placed so that there is room for exactly one person at a time to stand and browse on each side. Every corridor is lined with bookshelves, the passage through to the back rooms has a ceiling-height bookshelf right along the middle of it; there's a kind of plastic-roofed outbuilding at the back with more shelves, and somewhere in there there are even smaller passages which bring you out, alarmingly, behind the counter; and they, too, are full of bookshelves. Upstairs, even more shelves - in places so tightly packed that you have to reverse back out of dead ends.

Now, fill the shop with books. No, not just the shelves - although they are, inevitably, full to groaning with all manner of paperbacks and hardbacks; magazines and periodicals, childrens books and first editions - but pile all the books you can't fit on the shelves in neat stacks on the floor - narrowing still further the already perilously constricted passageways. And then pour a couple of dozen people in there, all shuffling past each other, muttering "excuse me"'s under their breaths, and you have my idea of the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

But that's not all. There are two further considerations; the elements which make a good bookshop great. Firstly, it's the kind of bookshop in which you will, whatever your interest or obsession, find something you've always wanted. In my case, on Saturday, I staggered upstairs under the weight of too many books which I couldn't really resist (and that doesn't count the ones I put back, sighing regretfully); I wanted to check the humour section, in which I resisted pretty much the complete works of Spike Milligan - I actually own most of them somewhere - and I failed to resist the first miracle: the only missing volume from the Hoffnung collection *points down* - the same edition, still in it's original dust jacket. Buoyant, I almost decide that it can't get any better, but I've checked the hardback biography section of every bookshop I've been in since 1988, so I might as well...

And there it is. 14 years since I took it out of Perth library, read it too quickly, and handed it back. In all that time, I have not seen hide nor dust jacket of Burton Bernstein's biography of James Thurber. But here it is, staring modestly back at me, imploring me to pick it up. Somehow, I fail to resist. The pile is now unmanageable, so I have to stop; I wonder what else I might have found. Now we come to the clinching argument in the 'best bookshop' stakes. We're in the affluent south east of England; second hand prices are not always much below new prices, particularly in London. Penn is the exception; the glorious exception - we came away on Saturday with 15 books, including my big hardback Thurber; I got change out of £20.

If you're not right now packing up and planning a trip to Penn, I shall want to know the reason why....

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