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 Book Shops > Not Quite Heaven

Not Quite Heaven – Book Fuddling in North Devon

Following my four day absence, Rufus, my youngest grandson, sidles up to me and asks "Where you bin?" Devon, I tell him. "Heaven" he replies, "You bin camping in Heaven. Was it good?" Well, yes, it was good. Not quite heavenly; but when both the weather and the books are decent, heaven doesn't seem that far away.

North Devon has been a stamping ground of ours for nearly thirty years. It's just a couple of hours drive from home, so it's ideal for a long weekend. And it was the first place we tried the combination of family camping and out of area book buying.

This stretch of the coast was beloved by the early nineteenth century Romantics for its theatrically beautiful combination of softly rolling hills and darkly wooded valleys, tumbling water and almost Alpine coast. It's a winning combination, which once visited, is difficult to resist.

However, the bookshops have always been more problematic. Never plentiful, the number of traditional independent shops in the whole coastal area between Porlock and Bideford is now reduced to just two. But as with skinning cats, there are more ways than one to find secondhand books ...

We camped in the well-hidden Newbury Valley, but within tottering distance of Combe Martin and its harbour-side pub, where Sunday evening's Guinness-lubricated reminiscing inevitably returned to that misanthropic old bugger, Benito, and his bookshop in Ilfracombe.

And it was in a Benito bereft Ilfracombe that we started our quest on Monday morning, systematically trawling every charity and junk shop along the length of its main street, en route to the Ilfracombe Charity Bookshop. In the first charity shop we managed to find a scarce photography book for three quid, and a derelict odd history volume containing twenty-five mid-nineteenth century county maps, for twelve quid. Not bad! Perhaps the gods will continue to smile on us.

Needless to say, the next EIGHT CHARITY SHOPS yielded very little, and the house clearer we bought well from last time had disappeared, to be replaced by ANOTHER CHARITY SHOP. It's said that the number of charity shops in a town is a fair indicator of its economic health, and sadly, Ilfracombe continues to struggle. But I love the town for it's Victorian exuberance of terracotta and wrought iron, which the passage of time has diminished, rather than destroyed.

Anyway, having slalomed around endless large ladies waddling between overly close clothes rails, we finally made it to the Ilfracombe Charity Bookshop. Don't be put of by the spirit sapping smell of rising damp, which seems to be a feature of Ilfracombe's charity shops, because that's were any similarity ends. This is a bookshop run for the benefit of a charity, rather than by a charity, and as a consequence has much better than average books. Most of the interesting books were priced to sell - and we bought them.

A good morning - and we were finished in time for lunch at Morthoe and a leisurely coastal meander in the glorious afternoon sunshine.

If it's Tuesday, it must be Bideford - but sadly its twice-weekly Pannier Market is now only good for holiday reading paperbacks, which huddle forlornly in the lofty space of the market hall. Years ago its Butchers Row of lockups was home to several booksellers, as well as some units whose purpose wasn't entirely clear, but included selling a few old books.

Of these booksellers, I vividly remember an old guy who stacked most of his books fore-edge out. This of course made it impossible to see what the titles were, and you were supposed to ask for what you wanted. Every time we visited I would try a few requests, which always drew a blank. But on what turned out to be the last time I saw him, I asked for British cinema annuals in dustwrappers. After a short pause he burrowed into the centre of a pile and produced three immaculately jacketed copies from the 1940's. I also seem to remember doing a deal for some illustrated books, so their owner could go and settle his bar bill ... happy days ...

Nostalgia aside, Bideford still manages to support a proper secondhand bookshop, and Allhalland Books had some interesting titles. However, these either seemed to be rather optimistically priced, or not priced at all. When I inquired about the latter, I was told, "They are being researched". We left empty handed.

Next door to the bookshop is that other endangered species, the junk shop. Fed by house clearances, its owner seemed happy enough with how business was, and after much poking about we left with a very modestly priced collection of books, that were curious, even by our standards.

The town has God knows how many charity shops, of which Oxfam is by far the best for books, and we found a bunch of reasonably priced Pevsner's and a couple of curiosities.

Peter Hames has left Old Bridge Antiques Centre, and whilst there are still books there, they are now much less interesting. And Discovery (which is really a record shop) continues to have some better books - although the stock in the cellar is no longer publicly accessible, due to the state of the stairs. Even so, we managed to find a couple of bags full of shop stock, and a sleeper* that may become an earner**.

The book shopping was all done by lunch, which we ate on the harbour wall, to a soundtrack of Curlew calling on the fast flooding mud flats. The late afternoon was spent reacquainting ourselves with Lynton and the Valley of the Rocks. It turned out to be an entirely bookless visit, as the fundraising book room in (I think) the Town Hall had closed at four, and the two charity shops yielded nothing.

Wednesday is flea day at Barnstaple's Pannier Market, so we decided to do the town's purveyors of the secondhand on our way home. There are usually at least a handful of people selling books on flea days, so the market was our first stop.

Three booksellers in the market deserve a special mention. Sennash books specialise in Henry Williamson, Exmoor and aviation, but also have general books on their stall. John Wilkinson, who deals in collectable children's books and toys, and Golden Books who had some high end West Country topography, as well as more general stock. We found something on all these stalls, as well as the odd title from other stallholders, some of whom had just a few books.

As well as having the best indoor market for books in North Devon*, Barnstaple is also home to the only other secondhand bookshop on the north coast. Unfortunately, Tarka Books' stock is now so dull that I could find nothing to like, let alone buy. Indeed, on reflection, I doubt that there was a book in the entire shop that I would have accepted as a gift

And there are of course, endless charity shops, giving refuge to books which would have been better left as trees. There's nothing to distinguish any of the charity shops, but there is also a remainder bookshop where some of the stock now so old that it is newly desirable - sorry, but I can't remember its name.

Well that's it, short and sweet - but not quite heaven. We were very lucky with our purchases, but I couldn't honestly recommend North Devon as a book-buying destination, even in the summer. But if you find this combination of outstanding landscape and attractive small historic towns appealing, then the books can provide the icing on the cake.

Mike Goodenough
31.07.08.

NOTES
*Sleeper. A book whose true value is not immediately obvious.
**Erner. A large profit made from a small outlay.
The Slang of the Book Trade from Bookride

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