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21 January 2020
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 Book Shops > Bennetto

Bennetto - or the Lure of the Backroom

Ah, backrooms - now there's a subject I could warm to. I remember the pleasure, many years ago, of getting into Bennetto's backroom in Ilfracombe. Bennetto was notoriously difficult to do business with. He hated the trade, wouldn't be included in any of the directories, in fact, he wouldn't let you into his shop! He would stand behind a table, which barricaded the door, and potential customers would have to ask for what they wanted, or point to barely recognisable titles in the dim and chaotic interior.

I still remember our first encounter, perhaps twenty-five years ago. My interest in the UK's numerous small islands was perhaps at its height, and I'd spied a nineteenth century pamphlet about the island of Lundy in his window. I asked how much it was, 'Oh you don't want to buy that' was his response. I asked why not, 'It's too expensive for you' he replied, and turned his back on me.

I was OUTRAGED - how dare this scabby old man in his rotting shop treat me like this. I hadn't been a full-time bookdealer for very long, but had found most of the trade courteous and helpful. Still, I'm nothing if not persistent and rumours abounded about Bennetto and the treasures that he was thought to have tucked away.

On subsequent visits I'd managed to pursued him to sell me the few trifles that I could make out in the internal gloom of the shop, or which resulted from fairly random enquiries. Then one day my five year old daughter found a children's book she wanted to buy in one of the mouldering boxes on the pavement. Quick as a flash she was under the table and into the shop. 'How much is this?' she demanded waving the book at him, because of course, none of the books were priced. He mumbled something. 'Hum' she replied 'It's not in very good edition - look it's all dirty.'

To my utter astonishment Bennetto melted. Mind you, this was not the first time that Alice's charming confusion over the finer points of book jargon had secured her a bargain - but I digress.

A few visits later he uttered the magic words, 'There may be some things of interest in my storeroom'. Bennetto's backroom was in fact a lockup garage some distance from the shop, but armed with the key and directions, we set off to find it. The lockup was nearly as derelict as the shop, and we struggled to open the rotting doors - to be confronted by a wall of paper.

Who knows what was in there? All we could do was tentatively pick at the surface, hoping not to provoke a bookslide. We staggered back to the shop with our pickings, which included a number of nineteenth century trade catalogues and a collection of turn-of-the-century watercolours of North Africa, some of which we still treasure.

Result! I entertained all sorts of fantasies of what I would discover on our next trip, but it was not to be. A few weeks latter he apparently suffered a heart attack, and on my next visit the shop was boarded up and the garage empty – someone else’s good fortune.

I've inveigled my way into many better-stocked backrooms since, but getting into that curmudgeonly old bastard Bennetto's, remains the best.

Mike Goodenough

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