Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Moonshine

I had a surreal experience yesterday. Wonderful, but surreal.

I visited the legendary Michael Moon's Bookshop in Whitehaven, to find some local history books for a friend.

It's a second-hand bookshop, one of those tardis-like old shops that defy the accepted laws of space and time. From outside it looks like one crowded room, hemmed in by softly snoring leather-bound volumes. Inside, the little rooms go back, and up, and on and on and on...

There are second hand books, and antiquarian books, boxes of forgotten text books, old postcards, and crackling maps. Tall shelves that seem to actually BE the walls... columns of volumes supporting the ceiling. There's the smell - dry paper and soft leather, and just a hint of dust.

And this time, to my everlasting joy, there was actually Michael Moon.

You know the type. Of course you do.

He was enthroned behind his desk in the corner, hemmed in by boxes of books and an old cash register. A fringe of white hair, cardigan... he probably should have been wearing glasses, but I can't remember if he did. In my imagination, he wears glasses. Oddly enough, he was working at a laptop that sat, slightly apologetically, in the midst of the paper world, the only concession to modern times.

I couldn't find the books I was looking for, so I asked. He told me there were only three books on that subject, and they were all out of print. When he said, only three books he probably meant in English, in recent times. But it sounded like he was saying only three books in the history of time in the universe And he didn't have to look it up in a catalogue.

He showed me some other books that might help. Then he suddenly realised that there had been another book printed on that subject quite recently, and produced that for me. I got the impression that he was intimately acquainted with every local book for the last 200 odd years. But anything published less than five years ago hadn't really registered on his radar yet...

I bought the books. I mentioned that I had been involved, very early on, in the project that produced one of the books I was purchasing.

We started to talk.

Ten minutes later, I put down my bags, took off my glasses, and sat down in the worn leather chair beside his desk.

We talked about books, about publishing, about purchasing and wholesale. We muttered about supermarkets as if the word was a curse (which, to many bookshops and writers, it is). We talked about his thirty-five year bookselling anniversary, the day before, about his status as a Master Grocer before he sold books. He was very pessimistic about the future of his shop, but his love for the books in his care spilled out.

He rescues books. Gives them a good home, cares for them, acknowledges them and reads them. He catalogues them, studies them, rebinds them, publishes and reprints them. Then, sometimes, he's forced by economic factors to sell them.

He hates parting with any of the 25,000 volumes stored in the dark rooms, he said. "But I suppose if you're a bookshop, you occasionally have to sell books."

Outside, time passed. Inside, it was subject to book-time. Slower, softer, more considered. I think we talked for an hour, in the company of a billion printed words, but it's hard to tell.

Eventually, I had to go. I shook his hand and told him it had been an honour. I complimented him on the comfort of his chair. "That's what Ian Paisley said," he replied.

Apparently he was a very "softly spoken gentleman," who browsed the theology section for hours, and then, unfortunately, had to buy some books. "But they had to sweep the place for devices before they let him in," said Mr Moon.

Can you imagine checking a shop of 25,000 books for a bomb???

Michael Moon could be a wizard. But probably he's just an alien, retired to earth in his magic shop, guarding that sourcerous resource that humans seem to have forgotten the power of - books.

8 Comments:

At 8:23 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was beautiful Anna...thanks! What a magical place...

and yes, I had "fiery, flame colored hair" in my current wip - page 15 - now I've got it highlighted to change! :)

Christyne

 
At 9:06 pm, Anonymous Suzanne said...

That's so cool, Anna. I wish I could visit that shop!

 
At 2:06 pm, Blogger The Mom said...

Anna if you're not published soon there is something wrong with the publishing world!

You have an amazing way of making me feel like I am right there with you.
When it was over I wanted to go back.

 
At 10:01 pm, Anonymous Kate Hardy said...

Anna, what a fab tale. Reminds me a bit of a shop we had in Norwich - called the Scientific Anglian. (Worst thing is, the H&S people shut him down because - well, old house, lots of flammable books, not enough whatevers to suit the legal bods. And the books are still there. You can see them looking all lonely in the maze of little rooms, wondering if they'll ever see real daylight again instead of stuff filtered through cobwebs...

 
At 6:49 am, Blogger Michelle Styles said...

Anna -- You have been tagged For If I could be...

See: http://michellestyles.blogspot.com/2005/05/tagged-if-i-could-be.html

 
At 2:55 pm, Blogger Beth Ciotta said...

What a magical story, Anna. Thank you so much for sharing. You just brightened my day.

 
At 11:23 am, Blogger Anna Lucia said...

Aw, thanks guys. Since I got involved with things online, I now have the terrible habit of viewing almost every interesting experience in terms of how I can share it with other people in words... It gets very tedious for Husband. ;-)

On my way, Michelle!

 
At 5:04 pm, Anonymous bookman said...

I am visiting Edinburgh during the Festival, here for the purpose of looking after my daughter Fiona’s old cat Elso, whilst she has a well-earned week’s holiday in Ibiza. With her prior permission, I put on her computer to look out for old books on Cumbria. Specific ones on West Coast History and Topography which I can always use more of. Some published 30 years ago by myself, for which we still get occasional orders. Yes, when you start buying back books you originally published and sold in the days when I still had enough hair to run a comb through, you can say you are well established. Yes, do have a lap top, for letter writing and ticket writing - but umbilically speaking, I am not connected to the Web.
And what do you think? Whilst tapping in my wants details I came across a piece about my old bookshop in Whitehaven. Surprised I was - certainly and flattered definitely. Thank you Anna Lucia. Sadly only 100% of what you said, is true. Just joking.

It is a fact that the old bookshop in many large, even Cathedral Towns is a dying institution. Towns are redeveloped, rents become too high and the High Streets are filled with a raft of cloned branches of Spec Savers, Holiday Tour Operators and Mobile Phone Companies. Who says Talk is cheap?

Like multi channel TV, reading habits are changing. 50 years ago, when I was a boy I saved up my five shillings a week pocket money for many weeks to buy a set of Chamber’s Encyclopaedias costing just £4.00 When I finally got to the old bookshop with a bag of small change, it had been sold. Now Encyclopaedias s are dead in the water, with new style so-called minimalist homes ( for that read - too small) all the information you could possibly need, is at your finger tips on a small plastic disc, or taken off the web.

When all the lights go out and our electronic gismos fail. When Libraries have thrown out all their books onto skips at the behest of the accountants who now run our Area Authorities, we will need bookshops again. Now the public buys its books from grocers in pile ‘em high sell ‘em cheap supermarkets. When most of the staff who work in them are not legally old enough to operate a bacon-slicer, let alone answer questions - we are all in trouble. The family butchers – a dozen in every town - have all but gone. So too has the Ironmongers with its myriad of labelled wooden drawers and brass beam balance scales. Even the corner shop Family Grocer, who had a boy to deliver your weekly order on his bike. A shopkeeper who could bone and roll bacon, add up a list of groceries in his head and tell the difference between a Santa Clara Prune and a Vostizza Currant and give you a week’s credit, too. Gone! Time became our God and in the rush save it, and to find somewhere to park our cars too, we all began to shop all in one big place, doing all the work ourselves, running around like loons trying to get the better of a trolley with an attitude, whilst humming ‘Three wheels on my wagon’, and wondering why of all the ones you could have used, you had to pick this one. We just kept on `convenience shopping’ and left the specialists to their own fate.

There are now only 700 old bookshops left in the UK. Did you know that? The second- hand old bookshop has become one of the last places you can find, where the owner’s name is still painted over the window fascia - running his world in his own individual way, holding out against the encroaching sea of chrome and formica. Putting his style, stamp and quirky personality on his chosen profession. No one makes him do it. He does it because he wants to. Supermarkets, Charity Shops and WH Smith may be fine, but they don’t buy books back. That is what old bookshops do best. They are a rich source of rarely tapped information, which comes from long experience, specialist books of reference and a good and active memory. Not from a computer.

One day, the time may come when booksellers are paid by the local authorities to bring variety and serendipity back into town centres. But probably not in my lifetime.
As booksellers, we are in a way, keepers of the nation’s collective memory and we lose sight of that at our peril.

Michael Moon Antiquarian Bookseller Whitehaven Cumbria.
Finding new homes for old books since 1970.

Thanks for stopping by and for your interest.

 

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