Monday, 3 June 2013

Two empty bookshops

Above is the empty shell of Notting Hill Books, less than five minutes from the tube station. For forty-four years, if you’d been waiting at the adjacent bus stop and seen something that caught your eye in the boxes on a table outside and gone through the door – there’ll be another bus along soon, and another – you’d have have found yourself in a version of heaven. Sheila’s shop.

I wrote briefly about Sheila’s shop in a TLS column early last year: ‘Once upon a time, Sheila came to London and found herself typing up manuscripts for Alexander Trocchi. I’ve arrived, she decided, without quite knowing where. For many years, from her shop round a corner in Notting Hill that feels like a shed or a ship’s galley, with timber ceiling and walls and the books in boxes as well as on shelves, she has been selling books that may not all be exactly new but neither are they second-hand and they’re certainly not remainders. She is known to many reviewers who don’t have shelf-space for all the books they are sent. From the price printed on the cover a buying price is roughly calculated, and a selling price is pencilled on the fly leaf, but these numbers are often, depending upon the interest of the conversation the books provoke, negotiable ...’

You can see from the slope of the ceiling behind the façade that this is more of a lean-to than a proper building. Paraffin heaters, not central heating, gave warmth. Accounts and receipts were written on scraps of paper. There were bargains galore (the poetry shelves not least), and always a fine selection of art books (from Phaidon and Thames & Hudson monographs to gallery catalogues). Sheila seemed to know everyone, or if not everyone then at least most of them, and even that is the wrong way of putting it because even if you were no one she drew you in, you were equal. Which shouldn’t really be difficult but in bookish circles can be rare. There wasn’t much money in that shop but there was a lot of good will.

Early last year Sheila had a stroke. She’s in a care home. I go round and read, and sometimes coincide with another former customer and sometimes with her brother, who is also in a wheelchair. A surreal place, it may be another version of heaven, an off-kilter one: strange moans from other rooms, the TV on loud in an empty day-room, institutional decorations, the staff few but patient, caring. Also in the day room: a shelf of board games with missing pieces; a set of plastic skittles; paperbacks of thrillers with embossed gold titles. We banter, gossip, she struggles for a name and we laugh.

Below is the shop in Portobello Road that in July, for one week only, the first week (1st to the 7th), I and Todd Swift of Eyewear Publishing will be taking as a pop-up bookshop (mostly small-press poetry, but not exclusively). One week compared to forty-four years – the blink of an eyelid. But selling books, and meeting random people who call in, whether or not they spend money, seems a decent way of spending time, and I’ll enjoy talking about it afterwards with Sheila.

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