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 Book Shops > Tales from the Belfast Bookshops

Tales from the Belfast Bookshops

The Arcade and Harry Hall's are the last vestiges of the many bookshops in the old Smithfield, the covered Victorian market which burnt down in 1974.

In Hall's, the stock ran the gamut from The Peril Ahead in the Department Z series of John Creasey, the phenomenally prolific Fifties author whose 562 crime and mystery thrillers sold more than 80 million copies worldwide, to the July 2002 edition of Readers' Wives, a publication of more fleeting charms.

Just around the corner, though, is the Arcade, run by John Clancy, who, back in the Fifties, worked for the legendary Harry Hall himself.

When I walked in, John was sitting in the corner, wearing a pinstripe suit and an off-white mac.

"I meant to take it off, then I got absorbed in the crossword," he said by way of explanation.

Above his head, a framed certificate said: "Prof John Clancy DJMH, winner of the Robert Louis Stevenson award for change of character. Highly commended." This may have been a reference to the times when he and his partner in crime, the late Tom Samways of the Irish News, liked a drink or three, but it would have been impolite to ask.

The customers were a man sporting a Dennis the Menace badge, a man with a white stick and a woman whose brother had just left for Tasmania.

Over the next few minutes, the conversation between the three of them roamed over subjects such as; Rinty Monaghan's greatest fights: "No, listen, the one in 1948 was his finest hour."; Jackie Fullerton: "Sure Jackie's so vain that he used to run down the wing for Crues combing his hair."; Latin: "A man with a good command of Latin can learn any language."; Music: "Aye, well, Clubsound are all right as a cabaret act, but they're not a proper showband."; Jim McGuinness, the Belfast VC: "What everyboy forgets is that he swam half- a-mile to rescue two drowning Germans."; Modern bookshops: "Aye, well, they're all right, but a Waterstone's in Belfast is the same as a Waterstone's in London. They don't cater for the local market." "You see," said John, "the old Smithfield was like a wee village, with all the characters of a village. There was Hugh McConnell, who sold valves for radios and secondhand false teeth. I remember an old woman coming in one day, trying a set and saying: 'Here, Hugh, these fit better than my own. Where did you get them? 'A lovely wee woman,' says Hugh. 'She's only dead three weeks.'

"Or Billy McBurney's record shop. He used to play the hit parade every night, and anyone who couldn't afford a record player would stand outside listening.

"Then there was a shop called Unique, which sold all kinds of odd stuff. It had a box in the window marked 'This box contains nothing', and yet people would always check inside it, they way they'll always touch wet paint, just to see if it's really wet.

"William Conor was a regular, and Joe Tomelty. He gave me half-a- crown once for a five bob book. I was raging. And Seamus Heaney - lovely man. Bernard MacLaverty was in recently, the first time I'd seen him since the Sixties. And John Lynch, funny enough, who started in the film of Cal.

"All good book men. Book men are all good men, anyway, of course. Although it amazes me what they leave in books. A fella came in one day and left a book with a slice of bacon in it. He came back later and said: 'Here, was there a slice of bacon in that book I left this morning?' 'There was,' I said. "Thank God, I'm starving,' he said, and left eating the bacon."

During the hour I was there, many people came and went, looking for books they couldn't find elsewhere, or didn't want to buy from an indifferent youth in a chain store. Some came in just for a coffee and a natter, and one was looking for a rare Mark Twain edition.

"Ah yes, Mr Clemens," said John, finding it immediately.

When I left, he had finally finished the crossword, then become utterly absorbed in a clipping from a 1952 copy of Radio Times.

The smell of Mary Denver's freshly baked carrot cake mingled with the sound of Pavarotti, and on the walls were posters advertising concerts, talks, language classes and, quaintly, the chance to buy an Assembly member for Christmas.

It was all I could do not to sit down, order some coffee and cake and plan a leisurely, civilised day in which I would attend a poetry reading, listen to a little Stravinsky and learn Italian.

On the neatly labelled shelves, Shakespeare nuzzled up against English history and Van Gogh's Ear sat next to Wigan Pier.

Books not yet sorted sat on the floor in a large cardboard warning anyone who was passing by to sell their eggs in rotation.

Suddenly, the door burst open and a dark and exotic woman wearing fur and sunglasses swept in from the rain.

She turned out to be Mary Preston-Silver, picking up some paintings by an artist friend, which she was trying to sell to local hoteliers.

"But it's impossible," she said with a wan sigh. "Everyone in this God obsessed, God-forsaken town is like Oscar Wilde's cynic: they know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

"Honestly, Mary," said Mary Denver, emerging from the kitchen with a tray of apple pie, "if you hate it so much, you should move to California."

"The trouble is, she's right," she said after the other Mary had left.

"The city used to be all little delis and record and book shops. Now it's Centra, Virgin and Easons, the same as everywhere else.

"The problem around here is the rent and rates. Six years ago the rates trebled at one go, and I'm dreading the next renewal. I pay the same as Villa Italia next door, even though my income is much lower, and I'm so worried about paying the bills that I haven't the energy to do more readings and literary events. The council should help small business, which promote culture, especially around the university, which is just turning into an area of restaurants and bars.

"The good news is that with the Seamus Heaney Centre, the quality of our poetry readings has increased amazingly, and we still get English and drama staff wandering in and holding meetings here because it's cosier than a tutorial room.

"A lot of young writers will come in and sit in the corner and write, for the same reason.

"A lot of booksellers, like James Feeney in Donegall Pass, have gone on-line, and I think I'll have to set up a website soon, but I hope it'll never replace the happiness of pottering around a bookshop."

Or enjoying Mary's carrot cake, I thought, ordering an extra large slice.

(The authorship of this article is unknown, but it originally appeared in the Belfast Newsletter 23.09.04. Shared by Aidan O'loan)

Mike Goodenough

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