Saturday, July 29, 2023

Second-Hand Bookshops in Britain: A Historical Profile

It will be no surprise to regular readers to hear that I have been using the old editions of Sheppard’s Directory of Secondhand Book Dealers to work out how many bookshops there were in the UK over the years, and I think I can now propose a historical profile.

The short answer is that there were 500-600 book shops in the mid-1950s, running through broadly to the Sixties and Seventies, though nudging upwards. In the Eighties a significant increase began, running through to the end of the Nineties when there were about 950.  We know there were about 1,100 in the first decade of this century, and there are about 1,000 (of all sorts) now. The details are as follows.

There were fewer than one hundred during the 19th century. The editor of Sheppard’s 1955-56 guide states that 31 second-hand bookshops “are recorded as having been established before 1850; 1850-59 another 17; 1860-69, 9; 1870-79, 15; 1880-89, 19; 1890-99, 17.”

This was followed by an accelerating increase in the first half of the twentieth century. His tally continues: 1900-09, 22; 1910-19, 25; 1920-29, 61; 1930-39, 68; 1940-49, 96; and since 1950, 42. I make that a cumulative total of 422 (assuming these are net figures).

For the year 1955 the editor provides an exact figure: his directory lists 523 shop premises (some also stock other things, eg stationery, prints, stamps). A further 101 dealers had stocks viewable by appointment. The rest only did postal business, or details were unavailable. Overall, the directory listed 987 dealers of all types.

In the 1964-66 edition, the editor says that how many dealers (ie, not just shops) there are can only be guessed. There are over one thousand in this directory, he says, but another hundred or so had to be held over for various reasons, and ‘there may well be a hundred more making, say, twelve hundred and fifty in all.’

Of these, ‘many dealers have large and handsome premises, but the far greater number have more modest shops in the less expensive districts of their town, while hundreds run postal businesses’ from a spare room, ‘or from overcrowded little stockrooms where the trade and the general public are admitted only by appointment’. He does not give a total for shop premises only: if the proportion was similar to the Fifties, there were maybe c.625 shops.

The same phrasing as to numbers is used in the 1973-75 edition of the directory, suggesting the editor thought the total was fairly stable.

We have another reasonably reliable number for July 1984, when Driff’s exhaustive guide numbers 942. Note that this figure derives from a different method to Sheppard. It is not based on information from dealers, but on an assiduous field survey by a customer (a professional book runner). For reasons why this is a good figure you really need to read the guide itself, and its editor’s entertaining account of his relentless quest after every remote rumour of a shop. There are similar numbers in the 1992-93 and 1995 guides.

There were 2,500 dealers of all kinds (including postal and by appointment) listed in Sheppard’s 1989-90 guide, twice as many as in 1964-66, and 2,638 in the 1999 guide. Figures for shops only are again not given, but I estimate, based on sampling, that there were about 960 in the 1999 directory, broadly consistent with the Driff figures.

Numbers from the late 1990s and early 2000s were affected by the expansion of charity bookshops (ie full scale bookshops run by charities). Oxfam had opened sixty by 2003,  fifteen more were announced in 2004, and by 2009 it had 130. Other charities have followed suit, such as Amnesty, Age UK, The National Trust.

We have another reliable figure, from The Book Guide, originally run by Inprint Bookshop, of Stroud, Gloucestershire, whose information comes from both readers and booksellers. This began in 2001, picking up where Driff’s Guide left off.  On 21 August 2017, this reported: “We list 1,217 bookshops in the UK and Ireland, with only 287 of them run by charities.” Of these, about 30 are in the Republic of Ireland, so the UK total was therefore 1,187. This figure was similar the following year, with 1,183 in 2018, and there was a net increase of 9 in 2019, making 1,192. 

This invaluable guide has kindly been carried on by volunteers, supported by readers’ reports, and in June 2022 there were 1,021 listings, a significant drop. In the year from then to June 2023 I count a further 54 have been removed (due to closure or change in use), while about 35 have opened or been discovered, a net loss of 19. The proportion of charity bookshops, however, has probably increased since the 2017 figure.

A more recent development is in community bookshops, run not by national charities, but for local good causes such as hospices. Another recent trend is for hybrids, such as book cafes, old and new books together, vintage and retro shops with a niche stock of books and so on.

We can therefore see that the number of second-hand bookshops increased in a steady progress from the Nineteen Fifties, reaching a high plateau probably somewhere around the first decade or so of this century, and is now slightly declining. These numbers have only been sustained, however, by the rise in charity bookshops: there are fewer old style traditional bookshops. Even so, there remain plenty of places of various kinds where second-hand books may be found.

(Mark Valentine)

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

The Gloom of Gary Myers's Dreamlands

In June 1975, Arkham House published The House of the Worm by Gary Myers.  It is a small collection of ten short tales, described in the dust-wrapper blurb as an episodic novel, when it is really no such thing. August Derleth had published three of the tales in his Arkham Collector before his death in early July 1971, and he presumably already had the complete manuscript from the author, for Derleth told Lin Carter shortly before his death that “he had plans to issue a slim little book of Myers’ tales, with delightful illustrations by a new artist” (quoted from Carter’s Lovecraft: A Look Behind the “Cthulhu Mythos”—published in February 1972, p.179).  

The “new artist” was Allan Servoss (a write-up of a 2014 exhibition in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, can be found here), contributed ten stylish ink drawings, plus the dust-wrapper art. When the book was published, Myers was still 22 (a short Introduction, dated April 1974, had been added to the book), though the main manuscript must have been completed when he was 20. When Derleth published the eponymous story in the Arkham Collector in the Summer of 1970, Myers was "in his eighteenth year." 

Derleth was noted for publishing precocious youngsters. In the 1940s he published Ray Bradbury's first book at age 27, and Robert Bloch's at 28. In the 1960s, he published Ramsey Campbell's first book at 18. And the anthologies Derleth edited often contained young writers.

Myers's book has a reputation, bolstered by comments on the dust-wrapper, of it presenting "the author's own special insight" into Lovecraft's mythos, and while there is some truth to this, an equally important influence was the tales of Lord Dunsany, specifically, those in The Book of Wonder (1912) and Tales of Wonder (1916; US title The Last Book of Wonder). Of course Lovecraft's dream cycle tales have their own roots in Dunsany, but Myers also follows many of the tropes in Dunsany: thieves, idols, old women in black, gods, dooms, deserts and lost cities. Even with his nomenclature Myers is following Dunsany's lead. 

Two other tales that were published in The Arkham Collector were "Yohk the Necromance" (no. 8, Winter 1971) and "Passing of a Dreamer" (no. 9, Spring 1971). "The Return of Zhosp" appeared in HPL (1972), edited by Meade and Penny Frierson. One tale of that time that was not collected in the book, "The Gods of the Earth," appeared in the Arkham House anthology Nameless Places, edited by Gerald W. Page, and published in November 1975. 

What of the tales themselves?  Doubtless some will find their elliptical style elusive, for the plots are often simple, while it is the expository style filled with allusions and partial explanations that hold a good deal of the interest. Like Dunsany's tales, and even Lovecraft's, it is probably better to spread out  the stories and not read too many at the same sitting. Here is an extreme sample (loaded with Lovecraftian referents) from the title story:

He revealed the secrets the night-gaunts whisper to those luckless dreamers they snatch from the peak of Thoth, to drive them mad; and the appearance of a Dhole; and the meaning of certain rites performed in worship of the goddess N'tse-Kaambl whose splendour hath shattered worlds; and the blasphemous Word that toppled the thrones of the Serpent-priests. He traced the sign of Koth on the table, and told of things in the forbidden Pnakotic Manuscripts which if written here would damn the writer. Men left his House weeping or mad, never to return; all save three, the braver or perhaps the more foolish, who came to the House of the Worm on that last night.

Such doom and gloom predominates in the collection.  I note that the entire volume was reprinted in a much expanded form in 2013 as The Country of the Worm: Excursions Beyond the Wall of Sleep. The 2013 edition, now out of print, was 248 pages, but a 2022 version of 292 pages is currently available, though I do not know if there are differences between these two editions, or if there are differences with regards to the texts of the 1975 collection.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Bookdealers of the fantastic and occult in a 1960-62 directory

There was for quite some years a standard reference work in the book trade, A Directory of Dealers in Secondhand and Antiquarian Books in the British Isles. It was published originally by Sheppard Press, London, and although its official title and publisher changed a bit over the years it was usually known as just Sheppard’s. The firm produced similar directories for each of Europe, the USA and India.

The guide to Britain was first published in April 1951 for 1951-52, and subsequent editions came out roughly biennially (later annually), but it seems to have stopped around 2008. It was a guide to Book Dealers, not just Bookshops, so the listings included those who only did business by post. In those cultured days, the booksellers listed the languages in which they could correspond: Francais, Deutsch, Italiano, and, in at least one case, Papua New Guinea Pidgin. I haven’t found Esperanto yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Other entries were for store rooms or private premises only open by appointment, and a few you could only contact care of their bank.

I’ve been browsing in a selection of the editions and enjoying some of the incidental details: the wants lists, the advertisements, the sometimes surprising and cryptic bookseller entries. Some of the latter set me off trying to find out more, or had me mulling over what mysteries might lie behind the brief descriptions.

Here, for example, in the 1960-62 guide, is A.W. Holness of Tonbridge, Kent, whose specialisms are: ‘H. G. Wells; yoga; model theatre’. This sounds like one of those competitions: can you write a short story containing the three following items?

Or what about the cozy-sounding Cottage Bookshop of St Anne’s Villas, London W.11? Their boxed advert offers: ‘Occult/Palmistry/Tarot Cards/Coloured Prints/Dolls & Games/Post Cards/Trivia/Toys’. You at once wonder exactly what dolls and games there were, and what toys. And those prints: did they stay quite still?

And there was clearly something in the waters of the Trent, for in the Nottingham & District section we have Peveril Books, prop James Orton, specialist in supernatural fiction, who in the Wants is seeking the Creeps series, the Not at Night series, William Hope Hodgson, E.F. Benson’s ghost stories, Bleiler’s Checklist of Fantastic Literature and more of that ilk.

Nearby, William Rogers of Derby offers occult and out-of-print fiction. Then there is Stanbury Thompson of Stapleford, Notts, who deals in Crime, Supernatural, Witchcraft, with a picture of the Last Trump for emphasis. “Copies of my own publications always supplied,” he offers. Anyone who has ever read one of his yarns would probably prefer Apocalypse. 

Some readers will recognise with nostalgia some fabled old hands in the fantastic literature field: Fantast (Medway) Ltd of Wisbech, prop. Kenneth Slater: or G. Ken Chapman of Ross Road, London S.E.25, who used to issue excellent lists rolled up in blue scrolls.

Altogether, in their Speciality Section, printed on pink paper, Sheppard lists seven dealers under the heading ‘Fiction – includes Fantasy, Weird, Witchcraft’ who specify one of those or similar, and twenty-one for ‘Religion and Philosophy (2) – Astrology, Occult, Psychic’. There might be a slight sense here of these subjects being Shepparded into separate pens away from the rest of the flock, but it does show at least that they were seen as significant book collecting categories.

The second list includes The Aquarian Book Service; The Atlantis Bookshop of Museum Street, (Flying Saucers as well as Occult), still open; Mary Crabb of Loders, Naunton Park Road, Cheltenham (Occult, Theology, Philosophy, Science); Mrs Hilary of Nelson, Lancashire (Astrology and Occult); Raymond Tranfield of Henley-on-Thames (Occult, Egyptology, Orientalia): and quite a few more.

In an earlier directory, of 1955-56, Mr Tranfield has a boxed advert with further details. He is ‘always anxious to purchase books in good condition relating to’ Alchemy, Demonology, Black Magic, Witchcraft, Ghosts, Oriental Folk-Lore, Hermetic Mystery, &c.’, plus Henley and Early Rowing Books. The Thames-side town must have been a veritable citadel of the esoteric, and perhaps some of this stock still lurks there secreted in dark armoires.

There are, as might be expected, some overlaps, eg Michael O’Daye of Crawford Street, London W.1 whose store-room holds ‘folklore, occult, super-natural fiction’. And there are others scattered throughout the directory who specify themes of a potentially interesting kind, eg ‘metaphysics’. What sort, we wonder . . . In any case, we can certainly see, in the specialisms of these early Sixties bookshops, evidence of the dawning of the New Age, the rise of Modern Paganism, and the return of Magic.

I have to admit it is tempting to write to some of the arcane dealers here, like the narrator in Ron Weighell’s splendid story ‘Drebble, Zander and Zervan’ (A Midwinter Entertainment, Egaeus Press, 2016), who sends off on a whim for a rare book priced in shillings and pence in an old catalogue, with surprising results. There is also the lurking feeling that if you visited one of the more promising premises in the right frame of mind or on the right lunar or sidereal occasion it would somehow still be there. Unchanged.

The directory also offers other possibilities. Just as some railway enthusiasts use vintage Bradshaw’s timetables to work out imaginary journeys in years gone by, so these old Sheppard’s editions could be used to plot fanciful browsing expeditions of fifty or sixty years ago, a pleasant pastime indeed for a rainy day. Or better still, why not combine the pursuits, and work out the optimum routes for visiting as many bookshops as possible by rail? Introducing SHEPSHAW, or, TRAINTOME - a fiendishly complex game for the discerning.

(Mark Valentine)