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26 January 2020
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 Book Shops > RIP Simon's Books 1978 - 2009

RIP Simon's Books 1978 - 2009

Learning of the death of Bryan Ives the owner of Simon’s Books in Somerton was a poignant moment for me. He was the last of a generation of truly eccentric West Country bookshop keepers, which included such off-the-wall practitioners as Robert the Books in Swansea, Sidney Martin in Cheltenham, and Thomas Bennetto in Ilfracombe.

As a breed, booksellers are still renowned for their foibles but in his shop Bryan managed to create a realm, which was almost an art form. A conventional looking double-fronted shop gave access to an interior of stark simplicity – bare floorboards and light bulbs -- the only decoration provided by a ridiculously large number of books.

The shelves around the walls and in the centre of the shop had long since been over-filled, indeed often double stacked with books which where in turn rendered largely inaccessible by the piles of books on the floor. On the few occasions when there were two or three people in the shop, the only way to pass was to shunt back and forth, like trains.

One quickly learnt that there was little point in burrowing as almost anything saleable was unceremoniously dumped on top of the rest. Bryan firmly believed that there was a customer for every book but in his shop this was, of course, a logistical impossibility.

We first visited perhaps twenty years ago after being alerted to its potential by a friend. In those pre-internet days book searching was still a significant part of our business and shops like Bryan’s were good sources of out-of-print titles. We were also looking for older books but apart from a few that made it into the windows they were rarely evident.

At the rear of the shop, separated by a sort of communion rail, was what had once been an office area. Decades old evidence suggesting administrative activity could be glimpsed, abandoned beneath a sea of books. This was Bryan’s sanctuary, where he sat amongst the clutter, chain smoking and espousing his rather right-wing views on all that was wrong with the world. It was also were he kept what he considered to be his better books.

My first few enquiries about barely discernable titles seen on the far wall, or poking out of half-hidden cardboard boxes, were greeted with the sort of frosty distain I had come to expect in shops like his. But eventually the fairly steady flow of our cash into his broken till led to a partial thaw.

I was, however, still expected to stand at the communicant’s rail, craning my neck in an attempt to spot something amongst his jackdaw-like assemblages. In the early days he rarely offered encouragement, or help, but as time went on he would proffer the odd volume and, on occasion, the contents of a box.

Like a number of his contemporaries, a book’s price was not for him something determined by the market but rather by his sense of its value. This meant that any title could either be comparatively expensive, or ridiculously cheap, depending on his prejudices. Needless to say, over the years we bought many eminently saleable books for very little money.

Of course it couldn’t last. The march of time and the rise of internet bookselling meant Bryan got less and less new stock. His response was to arbitrarily raise his prices on books, which, in the real world, were losing value by the month. Sadly, on our last visit a few years ago, we bought a couple of books simply because we couldn’t face leaving empty-handed.

So this really is the end of an era. I can’t help feeling that for men like Bryan, Robert, Sidney and Thomas – and no doubt many others around the country -- secondhand bookshop keeping provided an opportunity to give the rest of the world the finger. They ignored the economics of shopkeeping, indulged their prejudices, and created their own little worlds. I miss them.

Mike Goodenough

PS. Clive of Keeble Antiques originally reported Bryan's death, which he thought had happened a couple of weeks ago. Today, a customer in his shop said that it looked like Simon's Books was being opened a few mornings a week, presumabably to clear some of the stock.

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