The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction (2016)
SOME THINGS I BELIEVE
THESE ARE THE bookshops that made me who I am. They are none of them there, not any longer.
The first, the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial, was a traveling bookshop.
From the ages of nine to thirteen I attended a local boarding school, as a day boy. Like all such schools, it was a world in itself, which meant that it had its own “tuck shop,” its own weekly barbering facilities, and, once a term, it had its own bookshop. Up until then my book-buying fortunes would rise or fall with what was for sale in my local W. H. Smith—the Puffin books and Armada paperbacks that I’d save up for, only from the children’s shelves, as I had never thought to explore further. Nor had I the money to explore if I wanted to. School libraries were my friends, as was the local library. But at that age I was limited by my means and by what was on the shelves.
And then, when I was nine, the traveling bookshop came. It set up its shelves and stock in a large empty room in the old music school, and, this was the best bit, you didn’t need any money. If you bought books, it went onto your school bill. It was like magic. I could buy four or five books a term, secure in the knowledge it would wind up in the miscellaneous bit of the school bill, down with the haircuts and the double bass lessons, and I’d never be discovered.
I bought Ray Bradbury’s The Silver Locusts (a collection similar to, although not exactly the same as, The Martian Chronicles). I loved it, especially “Usher II,” Ray’s tribute to Poe. I did not know who Poe was. I bought The Screwtape Letters, because anything the bloke that wrote Narnia did had to be good. I bought Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming, the cover proclaiming that it was soon to be a major motion picture. And I bought The Day of the Triffids, and I, Robot. (The shop was very big on Wyndham and Bradbury and Asimov.)
There were few enough children’s books there. That was the good thing, and the smart thing. The books they sold, when they came to town, were, in the main, rattling good reads—the kind of books that would be read. Nothing that would be controversial or confiscated (the first book of mine that was confiscated was a copy of And to My Nephew Albert I Leave the Island What I Won off Fatty Hagan in a Poker Game, because it had an artistically naked female body on the cover. I got it back from the headmaster by claiming that it was my father’s book, which I’m pretty certain wasn’t true). Horror was fine though—like most of my year I was a ten-year-old Dennis Wheatley addict, and loved (although rarely bought) the Pan Books of Horror Stories. More Bradbury—much more, in the wonderful Pan covers—and Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.
It didn’t last for long. A year or so, no more—perhaps too many parents read their school bills and complained. But I didn’t mind. I had moved on.
IN 1971, THE United Kingdom went over to decimal currency. The familiar sixpences and shillings that I’d grown up with suddenly became new pence. An old shilling was now five new pence. And although we were assured it would make no real difference to the cost of things, it soon became obvious, even to a ten-going-on-eleven-year-old, that it had. Prices went up, and they went up fast. Books which had been two shillings and sixpence (er, twelve and a half new pence) were soon thirty new pence, or forty new pence.
I wanted books. But, on my pocket money, I could barely afford them. Still, there was a bookshop …
The Wilmington Bookshop was not a long walk from my house. They did not have the best selection of books, being also an art supply shop and even, for a while, a post office, but what they did have, I learned soon, were a lot of paperbacks that were waiting to sell. Not, in those days, the cavalier tearing-off of covers for easy returns. I’d simply browse the shelves looking for anything with the prices listed in both old and new money, and would stock up on cool books for 20p and 25p. Tom Disch’s Echo Round His Bones was the first of these I found, which attracted the attention of the young bookseller. His name was John Banks, and he died a few months ago, in his fifties. His parents owned the shop. He had hippy-long hair and a beard, and was, I suspect, amused by a twelve-year-old buying a Tom Disch book. He’d steer me to things I might like, and we’d talk books, and SF.
The Golden Age of SF is when you are twelve, they say, and it was pretty damn golden, as golden ages go. It seemed like everything was available in quantity—Moorcock and Zelazny and Delany, Ellison and Le Guin and Lafferty. (I’d make people going to America find me R. A. Lafferty books, convinced that he must be a famous, bestselling author in America. What was strange in retrospect was, they would bring me back the books.) I found James Branch Cabell there, in the James Blish-introduced editions—and in fact, took my first book back (it was Jurgen, and the final signature was missing. I had to go to the library to find out how it ended).
When I was twenty and I told John Banks I was writing a book, he introduced me to the Penguin rep, who told me who to send it to at Kestrel. (The editor wrote back an encouraging no, and having reread the book recently, for the first time in twenty years, I’m terribly grateful that she did.)
There’s a brotherhood of people who read and who care about books. The best thing about John Banks was that when I was eleven or twelve he noticed I was a member of the brotherhood, and would share his likes and dislikes, even solicit my opinion.
THE MAN WHO owned Plus Books in Thornton Heath, on the other hand, was not of that brotherhood, or if he was, he never let on.
The shop was a long bus ride from the school I was at between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, so we didn’t go there often. The man who ran it would glower at us when we went in, suspicious of us in case we were going to steal something (we weren’t), and worried that we would upset his regular clientele which consisted of middle-aged gentlemen in raincoats nervously perusing the stacks of mild pornography (which, in retrospect, we probably did).
He would growl at us, like a dog, if we got too near the porn. We didn’t, though. We headed for the back of the shop on a treasure hunt, thumbing through the books. Everything had a PLUS BOOKS stamp on the cover or the inside, reminding us that we could bring it back for half the price. We bought stuff there, but we never brought it back.
Thinking about it now, I wonder where the books came from—why would a grubby little shop in what was barely South London have heaps of American paperbacks? I bought all I could afford: Edgar Rice Burroughs, with the Frazetta covers; a copy of Zelazny’s A Rose for Ecclesiastes that smelled of scented talcum powder when I bought it and still does, a quarter of a century later. That was where I found Dhalgren, and Nova, and where I first discovered Jack Vance.
It was not a welcoming place. But of all the bookshops I’ve ever been in, that’s the one I go back to in dreams, certain that in a pile of ragged comics I’ll find Action #1, and that there with a stamp on the cover telling you that it can be returned for half price, and smelling of beer or of beeswax, is one of those books I’ve always wanted to read from the shelves of Lucien’s library—Roger Zelazny’s own Amber prequel, perhaps, or a Cabell book that had somehow escaped all the usual bibliographies. If I find them, I’ll find them in there.
PLUS BOOKS WAS not the furthest I went, after school. That was to London, on the last day of every term. (They taught us nothing on that day, after all, and our season tickets would take us all the way, and would die the day after.) It was to a shop that took its name from one of the Bradbury tales of the Silver Locusts: Dark They Were and Golden Eyed.
I’d heard about it from John Banks at the Wilmington Bookshop—I don’t know if he’d been there or not, but either way he knew it was somewhere I had to go. So Dave Dickson and I trolled up to Berwick Street, in London’s Soho, to find, on our first visit, that the shop had moved several streets away to a spacious building in St. Anne’s Court.
I had a term’s worth of pocket money saved up. They had teetering piles of remaindered Dennis Dobson hardbacks—all the R. A. Lafferty and Jack Vance I could have dreamed of. They had the new American paperback Cabells. They had the new Zelazny (Roadmarks). They had shelf after shelf after shelf after shelf of all the SF and fantasy a boy could dream of. It was a match made in heaven.
It lasted several years. The staff were amused and unhelpful (I remember being soundly, loudly and publicly ridiculed for asking, timorously, if The Last Dangerous Visions was out yet) but I didn’t care. It was where I went when I went to London. No matter what else I did, I’d go there.
One day I went to London and the windows in St. Anne’s Court were empty, and the shop was gone, its evolutionary niche supplanted by Forbidden Planet, which has survived for over twenty years, making it, in SF bookshop years, a shark: one of the survivors.
To this day, every time I walk through St. Anne’s Court I look and see what kind of shop is in the place that Dark They Were and Golden Eyed was, vaguely hoping that one day it’ll be a bookshop. There have been all sorts of shops there, restaurants, even a dry cleaner’s, but it’s not a bookshop yet.
And writing this, all of those bookshops come back, the shelves, and the people. And most of all, the books, their covers bright, their pages filled with infinite possibilities. I wonder who I would have been, without those shelves, without those people and those places, without books.
I would have been lonely, I think, and empty, needing something for which I did not have the words.
AND THERE IS one more bookshop I haven’t mentioned. It is old, and sprawling, with small rooms that twist to become doors and stairs and cupboards, all of them covered with shelves, and the shelves all books, all the books I’ve ever wanted to see, books that need homes. There are books in piles, and in dark corners. In my fancy I shall have a comfortable chair, near a fireplace, somewhere on the ground floor, a little way from the door, and I’ll sit on the chair, and say little, browsing an old favorite book, or even a new one, and when the people come in I shall nod at them, perhaps even smile, and let them wander.
There will be a book for each of them there, somewhere, in a shadowy nook or in plain sight. It will be theirs if they can find it. Otherwise, they will be free to keep looking, until it gets too dark to read.
This was the preface to Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores, edited by Greg Ketter, 2002.