Shopkeeping and Smutty Stories

Shopkeeping and Smutty Stories

Shopkeeping was fun in the 1980s. No computers, no internet, just The CliqueBookdealer and later Book and Magazine Collector to spread the word.  I get very nostalgic for the days when someone would come in with a book to sell. I would give them a fiver, pencil £10 inside and wait for someone to buy it, which they usually did. Much of the shop rent was paid by Mills & Boon, purveyors of romantic fiction. Sex was only hinted at, with plenty of waves crashing on beaches, volcanoes exploding and so on. I gather they are more raunchy now. At the time I bought them at 10p each and sold them for 30p. There were so many of them and the plots were so similar that readers had their own codes, usually put inside the back cover, so that they did not buy the same one twice. Green crosses, yellow ticks, red hearts, initials and so on. Prospective buyers never looked at the plot synopsis or the cover but turned immediately to the back to see if their code was there. After a year or so each one would have been read fifty times, I would have made enough money to pay the rent, and everyone was happy.

Some of my regulars quickly became friends, like the Assistant Diocesan Solicitor who came in every lunchtime and always bought something. He was very keen on Gibbon, and wanted to collect every edition of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I have no idea how many editions there have been, but by the time I left the shop I had supplied him with a wall full of them, including the first. I see there is a set of firsts for sale at the moment at $27,000, rather more than I charged him then!

My shop was in the cathedral city of Wells, close to Street and Glastonbury. Glastonbury was then turning into what it is today, a refuge for those with an alternative view of life and a belief in the power of magic mushrooms and dope. There are those who believe Jesus came there with Joseph of Arimathea and planted the Holy Thorn, those who believe that the Chalice Well has healing powers, those who are sure that the Tor is manmade and those who will tell you it is the centre of ley lines in Britain. One of the strangest theories is that the Tor is the centre of a great astrological map, defined by ditches, hedges and other landmarks. I could sell books on any of these theories, and was helped a lot by having a vegetarian café next door, and an aromatherapist opposite.

One day an elderly gentleman came into the shop, hobbling on two sticks, and asked if I could get him a two volume biography of Smuts. He was Bancroft Clark, senior member of the Clark family, and he had overseen the massive expansion of Clarks shoe firm after the war from their base in Street. The Clarks were Quakers, and had given Street a library, a primary school and a swimming pool, as well as full employment. Street has a population of about 10,000, but until comparatively recently no pubs, as the Clarks did not approve of alcohol. They bought The Bear opposite their headquarters, removed its licence and ran it as a temperance hotel. Like most central Somerset families we had connections with the Clarks empire. My father was a teacher and was given shoes for his class to test, some of which got to me and my brothers, my mother ran a school in part of the Quaker meeting house, and I had a summer job in one of the Clarks offices.

The book Bancroft Clark had asked me to get was the biography of Jan Christian Smuts, general and twice prime minister of South Africa. It seemed an odd book for him to want, but he told me that he had married one of Smuts’ daughters and he wanted his grandchildren to know about their great grandfather, so he would like me to get a set for each grandchild. I said I could do that and asked how many grandchildren he had and he said “twenty one”. I was a bit taken aback but started quietly sourcing them, telling only trusted confidants what I wanted, in the hope we could still get sets fairly cheaply. As I was buying every set that came up the trade started to think it was a scarce and desirable set and the price started to rise, with other dealers advertising for it, presumably in the hope of selling it to the unknown purchaser - me.

By the time I had bought twenty one sets the price had trebled, but Bancroft understood how it happened and then asked me to provide twenty one sets of the Smuts letters, a seven volume work which even then was quite expensive. I had supplied seven sets by the time he died. I have to say that sadness was not the first thing I felt when I heard of his death, but fear that all twenty one grandchildren would ask me to buy back the Smuts biographies. Luckily they decided to keep them, and the senior grandchild felt that they had enough volumes of the Smuts papers to go around, so another income stream was closed.

Chris Saunders -