Sunday, January 28, 2024

Aquarius, Arcania, Arcturus: Exploring New Age Shops

As well as second-hand bookshops, I have always enjoyed what are often called New Age shops. These started to appear in Britain, I suppose, in the late Seventies and Eighties. Why do I like them? Well, for one thing they often have a small stock of fantasy and supernatural fiction books or locally-produced ghostly or antiquarian booklets of unusual interest. But these bookish hopes aside, they have other attractions.

When I first came upon them, they seemed exotic and different. They always smelt alluring because they sold joss sticks, incense and oils. Occultique in Northampton had a signboard that promised ‘Oils, Resins and Rare Gums’, which suggested an Alexandrian bazaar rather than a shop in a South Midlands shoemaking town. Patchouli, Sandalwood, Cedar or Old Rose often waft around you as you enter such shops.

They also sounded pleasing because there was usually drifting, dreamy New Age or ambient music, fostering a wistful, contemplative mood. Sometimes the recordings were enhanced by the sound of waves, or rippling streams, or the wind in the trees. There was also the gentle tinkling of the wind chimes invariably sold in the shop. And New Age shops sold strange and wonderful things you couldn’t then get elsewhere, especially tarot cards, amulets and minerals: moonstone, agate, onyx. What with the exotica, the aromas and the music, they felt like a completely different sort of space to the everyday world of the Eighties.

Such shops were also often fulcrums for groups and individuals interested in Pagan, Esoteric, Magical and Ancient Mysteries ideas, when these were very much minority interests: through notice boards, newsletters and chats with the proprietors you could find your way to like-minded souls. It may seem incongruous now, but in the early days they were often regarded with a certain wariness by the more conventional, as if they harboured sinister occult conspiracies out of a Dennis Wheatley thriller rather than pictures of unicorns and earrings of owls. Admittedly, this gave them a frisson of defiant difference too.

As I have recounted elsewhere, it was a notable New Age shop, Gothic Image in Glastonbury, that introduced me to a sheaf of pagan, Celtic, antiquarian and alternative magazines: Pendragon, Caerdroia, Wood & Water, Sangraal and so on, opening up a world which reminded me of the fiction of Machen and Blackwood and Fortune. This shop had opened, I now learn, in 1979, and I must have visited soon after, when it certainly seemed to me marvellously unusual.

It closed, alas, in 2019, when in an interview with The Bookseller, it was described as “[T]he UK’s first ‘alternative bookseller’” (‘Glastonbury’s Gothic Image shuts up shop after 40 years’, The Bookseller, Jan 14, 2019). By “alternative” the writer probably had in mind the broader Sixties counter-culture. There were certainly earlier occult and esoteric bookshops such as Watkins in London, founded in 1897, Atlantis in Museum Street, opened in 1922, and indeed Occultique in Northampton, opened in 1973.

After discovering Gothic Image, I began to look out for similar shops wherever I went on my book-collecting or ancient monument excursions. I never quite had the same wildly enriching set of finds in a New Age shop again, but there was usually something unusual, independent and eccentric. At first, there were not all that many: there was one at Avebury for a while, and something of the sort in Penzance. 

I always thought of Malvern as a sort of second to Glastonbury as a mystic citadel in Britain, and have a fondness for it precisely because of this (my story ‘Armed for a Day of Glory’ is set there). I was an early member of the Green Party when it was called the Ecology Party (I still have the badges somewhere) and Malvern was one of its seed-beds, as it was also for several New Age healing, holistic and psychic groups. 

Not surprisingly, therefore, Malvern had a New Age shop too. Aquarius opened in 1989, and the owner, Valerie de Heer, said that she then knew of only two others in the country: Arcania in Bath and Arcturus in Totnes. The Aquarius website notes: “Our aim was, and still is, to provide a shop that could offer spiritual teachings and guidance (which was hard to come by then) in the form of esoteric books, card sets, anything in fact that could help people in their spiritual search.”

Valerie de Heer said in a 2019 interview: “Malvern has a lot of healers, a lot of creative people and, of course, a lot of musicians, so the town really has a special atmosphere and it is a joy to be here  . . . when we started out, these sort of things were considered a bit marginal, but aspects of this type of thinking are more or less mainstream these days . . . People tell us that they like to come to the shop because it has a very calming, relaxing atmosphere.” (‘New Age shop Aquarius is now old favourite’, Malvern Gazette, 21 February, 2019).

One such shop that I didn’t discover then but is still thriving now was opened slightly earlier than Aquarius. Inanna's Festival at 2, St Andrew’s Hill, Norwich, has been open since 1988, and their stock list is a useful epitome of what New Age shops sell: “silver, bronze & gemstone jewellery; statuary in resin, ceramics and pewter; hand-blended fragrant incenses (powders, granules and sticks) and magical oils; crystals, fossils, shells, mineral specimens; relaxation, healing and world-music albums; books, including blank Books of Shadows/Journals; tarot cards and oracle sets, runes, pendulums, I Ching, Crystal Balls, dowsing rods and scrying mirrors; greetings cards, posters and prints, calendars and diaries; special pieces such as Tibetan Bowls, Native American ceremonial pipes, dreamcatchers and smudge sticks.”

There are now many more such emporia and now some proudly call themselves “witchy” shops, often with a cross-over into Hallowe’en, Goth and Steampunk culture. In fairly recent excursions I’ve encountered one in a small Westmorland town of fewer than two thousand souls, another in a Shropshire spa town of five thousand, and a third in a market hall in a mid-Wales town of six thousand: and these are by no means exceptions. It’s interesting to see that such shops are supported even in fairly small communities. And they are still worth visiting, quite apart from their other qualities, just in case a few fantastical volumes might be found.  

(Mark Valentine)

Image: Aquarius, Malvern (

Monday, January 22, 2024

Second-Hand Bookshops in Britain: 2023 Report

The Book Guide is the most reliable and up-to-date guide to second-hand bookshops in Britain. It is run by volunteers and the details are provided from reports by dedicated browsers out in the field. It is an absolutely invaluable resource for anyone planning a bookshopping holiday or visiting an area where they will have time for one or two (or more) bookshops.

The Guide also helps to keep track of how the second-hand book trade is working. I outlined a broad history of the profile of second-hand bookshops in the UK in an earlier post. After a peak around the turn of the century there has been a decline in the overall numbers, though arguably alongside greater versatility in where books may now be found (eg in cafes, churches, vintage shops etc).

There remain, however, about a thousand shops whose main stock is second-hand books. The major change, in the last 30 years, has been the growth of charity bookshops (ie full bookshops, not general shops with a few shelves of books among bric-a-brac, clothes etc). This was spearheaded by Oxfam, but has been taken up by other national charities such as The National Trust and Amnesty, and by local good causes eg hospices. These now account for several hundred of the total number.

The position in 2023 remained broadly similar. According to reports to the Guide, about 40 second-hand bookshops in the UK closed or changed use during 2023. They included some well-known and well-liked examples. 

Those that said their farewells included Fossgate Books in York, haunt of many a trip by Northern Machenites and friends; The Border Bookshop in Todmorden, where I once discovered in a book of cricketing memoirs the secret of the JHVS Syndicate alluded to by Arthur Machen; the much-admired Harrowden Books, in Finedon, Northamptonshire, one of the few in the shire; Mogul Diamonds in Albrighton, Shropshire, possibly one of the few second-hand bookshops with a church organ inside; and Badger’s Books of Worthing, described by past customers as “A lovely old-fashioned shop” and  “My idea of the perfect traditional bookshop”.

However, at least an equal number and in fact probably a few more have opened or been newly discovered in 2023, which means that the total number has remained fairly constant, at around 1,000. The difficulty in keeping track is illustrated by the addition to the Guide of several bookshops going for many years that had unaccountably been missed, and numerous local charity bookshops in towns off the beaten track. There are without doubt more to be discovered.

Fortunately, several dozen enthusiastic contributors are still finding plenty of good browsing on their travels, as the regular updates to the Guide continue to show, and more reports are always welcome. 

(Mark Valentine)

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Sidney Sime Exhibition

Sidney Sime is a notable figure in the field of fantastic art for his work illustrating the tales of Lord Dunsany. The two worked so well together that for one volume Sime did the art pieces first and Dunsany wrote the tales in response to them. Sime also illustrated Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams, and produced exuberant comical fantasies for such magazines as The Idler and Pick-Me-Up.

Many of Sidney Sime's artworks were bequeathed by his estate to a special Sime Gallery and Archive at the Memorial Hall in Worplesdon, Surrey, where he had lived, and here they have been available for some years for viewing by appointment. 

The local volunteers have been most courteous and helpful in welcoming visitors, but it would be fair to say that Worplesdon is somewhat out-of-the-way and fairly few enthusiasts and researchers have taken the opportunity to view this remarkable collection.

Now, however, some of the highlights have been made available to the Chris Beetles Gallery, Ryder Street, London, for a major exhibition of some 80 of Sime's works: 'Sidney Sime, Master of the Mysterious'. The gallery's website illustrates a generous selection of the works on display, which include both his fantastical scenes, in the Dunsany mode, and caricatures of local people.

The exhibition is on until 27 January.

(Thanks to the editors of Faunus for drawing this to my attention). 

(Mark Valentine)

Image: 'Beast in the Woods' by Sidney Sime.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Strangers Wave - Vik Shirley

A formal black box with text in classical Roman lettering. It looks as though it must contain funeral stationery. Black-bordered envelopes and writing-paper. Cards of condolence. Sombre sealing wax. The impression continues when you open the box and see a dark ribbon in a twisted cross holding the contents in place.

But you find instead bleak photographs of railway bridges, leaf-strewn alleyways, bricked-up windows, cemetery chapels and the worn faces of stone angels. And across them are juxtaposed strips of melancholy, fragmentary phrases in typewriter font and at all angles, just like a xeroxed punk zine. The phrases seem resonant, fateful, even prophetic, and you feel that you are reading the modernist major arcana of a dark urban tarot.

This is Strangers Wave by Vik Shirley (Zimzalla), and the photo-collage postcards are inspired by the music of Joy Division: the scenes are from Macclesfield, the home town of Ian Curtis, and there are terse, oblique allusions to his lyrics and to the eerie transcript of a tape of the singer attempting to regress to past lives.

An accompanying booklet explains the pilgrimage the poet made to places in the town connected to Curtis, and her cut-up technique, seeking ‘new expressions and meanings . . . stripped back, minimised and remixed to make something new, all the time tapping into the other-worldly, still electrifying atmosphere of the music of Joy Division.’

There was a time when ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, from its sleeve of lichen grey, was on my record player almost every day, along with ‘Read About Seymour’ by Swell Maps, ‘Where Were You?’ by The Mekons, ‘He’s Frank’ by The Monochrome Set’ and ‘Existentialist’ by Prag Vec. These cards remind me of those flat above a shop days of the long grey mac and the rain sweeping over the Pennines, and seem to me an authentic, psychically-charged response to the spirit of that time.

The publisher, Zimzalla, are a bravely experimental press who issue poetry objects. Previous issues include a ‘cog-shaped text combiner’, a fossil box, a dish of cold chips and an ‘Unclassified Psychedelic Research file from an alternative future’. This is their latest release, of ‘echoes and whispers, dimly-heard voices from the graveyard, the haunted ballroom and the psychic dancehall, the black noise of rain on railway arches and motorway underpasses’ (C D Rose).

(Mark Valentine)