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Robert the Books

I worry I may have left it too late to write about Robert the Books because these addled memories seem too ridiculous to be true. This feeling of unreality is compounded by entries for Robert the Books on Marie Celeste-like Welsh business directory websites, which boldly proclaim his existence at 12 Dillwyn Street, Swansea. This, at least I know to be untrue; number 12 has been a baguette shop for many years. However, it's now or never - so here goes.

I don't recall when I first visited but it must have been sometime in 1974 when my parents retired to Wales. What it was called back then eludes me, perhaps because I don't believe there was ever a name displayed above the door.

However, Robin Healey's piece 'Lost Bookshops' on the Bookride website suggests that it was 'Ralph the Books'. He describes the shop in what could be said to have been its heyday when Ralph Wishart (a friend of Dylan Thomas) encouraged Robin in the early stages of his bibliomania.

He concludes his article by telling us: 'Ralph died in 1975 and his brother retired soon afterward, leaving the shop in the hands of a peculiarly charmless younger man…' That can only have been Robert!

Robin's vivid description of Ralph, his stock, and the idiosyncratically chaotic shop perfectly accords with my own recollections of early visits. However, once Robert took over the reins, the good books dwindled away and the remaining moribund accumulation began its slow descent to compost.

You might think that on taking over the business Robert would have altered a few things or undertaken some improvements. But as far as I could tell the only changes he ever made were grudging, minor mitigations to the decaying state of the building.

By the late 1970's I was buying and selling printed things for a living and in 1981 I opened a secondhand bookshop in Stroud. Robert's shop provided an exemplar of what I was determined to avoid - I wanted mine to be bright and colourful with a high turnover of stock - the sort of place where customers might actually enjoy spending their time and money. But I digress.

Even in its 'heyday' as Ralph the Books, it must have been a dour place. Like most general secondhand bookshops of the time it wasn't in any way a space designed to sell books from, but rather a place which hinted at some previous purpose; filled with books.

12 Dillwyn Street had probably started life as a private house, with the later addition of a double bay shop front and a large, glass lantern lit warehouse at the back. Ralph had stuffed all of it with books and Robert sold what he acquired off the top of this mouldering substratum.

The street itself had endured its own decline - once a thriving trading community in the 1930's, wartime bombing had decimated it and the Swansea planner's version of an urban freeway sealed its fate in the 1960's.

None of this in any way put me off; in fact, I rather liked it*. As Robert appeared to have little interest in or knowledge of what he was buying and selling there were still bargains to be had. Not so many roast beef** bargains in their tooled leather bindings, but much to interest a less traditionally literate post-war generation of collectors and enthusiasts.

The plunder from one early visit made it almost impossible to squeeze all the children's books and annuals into our tiny car, along with my wife, small daughter and dog, for the journey back to Stroud. And on increasingly regular visits I continued to profitably scratch the surface and occasionally gain access to the 'best' books behind the area of counter where Robert and his Welsh-speaking mates huddled around a spluttering Calor Gas heater.

Things changed (not for the first or last time) during a visit with my daughter Alice, then aged about six. She was a voracious book consumer and would happily burrow about in the children's books heaped upon and underneath a central island composed of old tables pushed together.

Whilst I was engrossed in rummaging elsewhere, she had evidently spotted something unreachably marooned in the middle of this morass, and Robert had detached himself from the gas heater to come over to assist her. Not only that, they were engaged in conversation! This was unheard of and in the six or so years I'd been visiting I don't think Robert and I had exchanged that many words.

Anyway, whatever words had passed between them, they improved my relationship with Robert who slowly began to thaw a bit. And although we rarely managed a conversation, the question and answer sessions grew longer.

He asked more about what I was looking for and began to produce things from under the counter or from a locked storeroom. His pricing seemed to be entirely based on guesswork, so books were bought and bargains were had.

Then one day he showed me a box of books and asked what I would offer for the ones I was interested in. He seemed pleased with my prices and a large number of books were bought in this way.

Finally, I was let into the locked storeroom. Robert appeared to put anything he thought might conceivably be worth money in there and then invite offers from privileged customers. I bought a lot more books.

On one memorable visit, the storeroom was filled with boxes of books which Robert said belonged to 'The Family'. They had clearly been in a family library and included some good books acquired by several generations of readers.

The odd thing about many of them was their condition. In the main, they had obviously been carefully shelved and well handled until very recently when they appeared to have been skipped. The damage seemed consistent with having been unceremoniously dumped - ranging from minor scuffing and bent corners to totally detached covers.

Despite this there where still some very desirable books amongst them, including early Churchill, poetry, fine bindings, early natural history and science. Robert asked me for a price so that he could make an offer to 'The Family'.

I had occasionally taken books away to price using (pre-internet) auction records. On this occasion I filled the car twice. My offer came to a lot of cash and I explained that I would have to buy them in several installments. It turned out that he didn't have to consult 'The Family', he just said yes! However, this proved to be the high point and visits to the storeroom became progressively less productive.

Of course, all this economic activity was taking place 'under the counter' and produced little or no change in the stock on the shelves. What few books did appear looked like they had been left there by people sick of trying to give them to the local charity shops.

Some with colourful dustwrappers were added to the 'window displays', where most quickly faded in the intense seaside light, to achieve ghostly uniformity with their long dead companions.

Robert himself blended perfectly into his sun bleached and dust obscured habitat. Pallid, he sported a moustache that wasn't so much mimicking Hitler's, as trying to seek refuge under his nose. Topped with a liberal application of Brylcreem and always clad in a light grey warehouseman's coat, he was quite difficult to spot when at rest - which he usually was.

In fact, the only thing that could be called dynamic at 12 Dillwyn Street in these later years was its rapidly increasing rate of decay. Robert had evidently been left the building and was (wrongly) convinced that it was going to be bought up for some future redevelopment - so why waste money on maintaining it?

When I first started to visit the leaks were mainly confined to the large glass lantern roof light which provided the only natural illumination for the warehouse at the back. Over the years broken panes of glass and leaking joints were repeatedly taped until the mosaic of botched repairs were finally topped off with a light denying tarpaulin.

When even this failed to stop the water's ingress; and electrocution from the combination of failing wiring and rivulets of rain running across the flagstone floor became a real possibility, Robert hit on a really novel solution.

The whole of the area under the roof light was taken up with a huge worktable of some kind, which of course was covered in a mountain of very damp books which no one had looked at in years. Robert simply removed books to hollow out the middle and lined it with plastic. A water feature at almost no cost - brilliant!

However, visits became increasingly impeded by the buckets dealing with the consequences of slates missing from the main roof and the smaller of the bay windows was abandoned to colonies of algae in various hues.

One day I arrived during a heavy storm and the lost guttering induced cascade of water pouring over the shop door was such that I had to shelter across the road until it was possible to gain entry. I commented on this to Robert whose response was 'yes, it has been very wet recently.' I had a desultory look around and noticed that the large bookcase on the back wall of the main shop had been pulled forward to allow water to run down the wall and disappear into the floorboards …

I guess this was when I realised that the game was up. I went back a few times when I had some other reason to be in the area but there was nothing left to buy. Robert and I would exchange pleasantries; he would ask about Alice and then fade into the background to resume his wait for the redevelopment bonanza that never came. I wonder what happened to him.

Mike Goodenough

*A Drif Special - A shop so low key that most dealers cringe at the thought of going in it which is precisely why I like it so much. The books are even lower rent than I am, but I am quite often in better condition than them...just.

**Roast Beef - A bookshop which is attempting to sell the same books as were popular fifty years ago ... it is not so much the books themselves that make a Roast Beef shop but the way the shops price and value them.

See: Drif's Guide to the Secondhand & Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain 1995.

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