Readers of this blog or LeftLion will know that my special power is an ability to link any person or place with Nottingham. So while visiting Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in Llangollen, Wales, my one degree of separation was English civil engineer William Jessop (23 January 1745 – 18 November 1814). Jessop designed this 38m high tramway system that connects local industry to the north of Rhos and the Trevor basin. It was completed by Thomas Telford.
Jessop, with surveyor James Green, were also responsible for the Nottingham Canal, which once covered 23.6 kilometres (14.7 mi) between Langley Mill in Derbyshire and Nottingham. It opened in 1796, having cost twice the initial estimate of £43,500 (£3,820,000 in 2015), but by 1937 it became obsolete due to the railways.
The canals were where Arthur Seaton, the hard-drinking womanising anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), would go fishing to gather his thoughts. Towards the end of the book the canals offer a rare moment of reflection for the head-strong and guttural Arthur Seaton:
“Everyone in the world was caught, somehow, one way or another, and those that weren’t were always on the way to it. As soon as you were born you were captured by fresh air that you screamed against the minute you came out. Then you were roped in by a factory, had a machine slung around your neck, and then you were hooked up by the arse with a wife. Mostly you were like a fish: you swam about with freedom, thinking how good it was to be left alone, doing anything you wanted to do and caring about no-one, when suddenly: SPLUTCH! – the big hook clapped itself into your mouth and you were caught.”
But I was also in this neck of the woods to visit the appropriately named Café and Books which is owned by a softly spoken, and stereotypically friendly, scouser called Darren Preston. My first question to any bookshop owner is always the same: What books do you read? Dan pauses and smiles. ‘To be honest with you, I don’t read.’ He’s refreshingly candid and turns out to be a genuinely pragmatic businessman.
Darren, or ‘Dan’ as he prefers to be named, originally bought the café but later acquired the upstairs bookshop when the owner passed away 15 years ago. The bookshop had been going since around 1989 and so clearly complimented the café. Quite simply, his ethos is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Although trade has been a bit slow of late he’s optimistic of a revival, ‘like what happened with record vinyl’.
His hope is that people purchasing books will nip downstairs and have a read in his café, which probably explains why there is no till in the bookshop. You need to walk along a counter of cakes and sandwiches to purchase it at the only till. Equally customers are encouraged to bring books down and read while drinking, using the bookshop as a kind of library. Any left on the table are simply returned back upstairs when he has a minute.
It’s because the café takes prominence in his business model that he’s not bothered about selling any of his books online. He explains that it would take too long to stock and he’d have to close down the bookshop for a couple of weeks to catalogue them all. He’s more interested in the physical space of the building and so has recently built a play area to the back of the café, to give parents a break over a cuppa.
Dan seems happy as long as things are ticking over and the bills are being paid, high profit margins aren’t his ulterior motive. It’s no wonder the business appears to be doing well. ‘My philosophy is you can’t know everything. What I know is cafés. There’s probably some real gems of books up there but we don’t have the time to find them. Dealers come in and find specific stuff which will make them some money. But I don’t care about that. They keep coming back because I charge a fair price. It’s a food chain and we’re happy with what we get. And if a book is priced too high then people just ask me to knock a bit off and I do. I’m really not that bothered.’
However when a book comes in that’s a bit specialist and is worth the effort then he’s happy to sell it on eBay or Amazon. As he’s not much of a reader, this is where the expertise of Paul Spackman is required. Paul is a part-time author who has worked at the bookshop for 21 years. He was such a regular visitor, both for research and pleasure, that Dan offered him a job, pointing out ‘you might as well work here’.
He takes me around the upstairs bookshop which is an absolute labyrinth of snaking trenches of books covering every niche and genre imaginable. I’m in Women’s Studies for one moment before spinning around and discovering a section on industry. There’s books by and about DH Lawrence. Some of the spines are battered, others look like they’ve just been born. I find one of Graham Joyce’s many award winning novels and some maps of the local area.
Like all good secondhand bookshops, this one is geared towards serendipity. There’s absolute gold on these shelves but you need a good few hours to stumble upon it. The sheer randomness means I end up with a composting guide by an irate author who bemoans being unable to shit in his own compost any more for fear of frightening the neighbours. And at the other end of the spectrum I find a copy of David Mitchell’s first novel Ghostwritten, which is a lot better than his most recent offering, The Bone Clocks.
Paul explains the stock is mainly job lots from house clearances or car boots. He then sifts through them and creates an order out of the chaos. There doesn’t seem to be a particular type of book that sells better than others although the recent popularity of TV adaptations, such as Poldark, seem to have triggered an interest in your more casual reader.
When I ask Paul about his own books he walks off and returns with the shop’s copy of ‘God’s Candidate’. This was his first book, published in 2008, and ‘it’s about Pope John Paul I, the one who became famous for allegedly being murdered but (pauses) he wasn’t. I’ve recently updated it and I’m hoping to have it translated into Italian later this year or early next year. I’m currently finishing a book entitled ‘Sarah Palin: With An Alaskan Heart’ and am hoping to find a home for it with an American/UK publisher. And if all goes well my next book will be about Italy from 1945 – 1994’. As you’d expect from someone working in this kind of bookshop, his own writing is pretty eclectic.
Together Paul and Dan make a good team, working to their respective strengths. They are both open to ideas about how the bookshop can become an intrinsic part of the community. Although Dan is not actively seeking out events he’s happy to accommodate the needs of local authors who might want to use the space for book signings etc. He strikes me as someone who would say yes to anything, as long as it doesn’t cause him extra hassle.
As I’m leaving Dan tells me the shop’s been used in a short film which was based on a popular vampire book. He’s got a copy if I want to buy one. He’s not read it himself, of course, but he’s happy to stock it to support the local author. Later that evening I check out their website. It’s pretty basic, as you’d expect from an owner who lives very much in the physical present. There are two books listed for sale. One is a first edition hardback of Mein Kampf going for around £1,000, the other is a signed copy of God’s Candidate for £12.99.
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.
- Caught: Arthur Seaton and Nottingham’s Canals (sillitoetrail.com)
- William Jessop the Modest Expert (canalrivertrust.org.uk)
- Independent Bookshops in Wales (theguardian.com)
- Write Now Llangollen (llanblogger.blogspot.co.uk)
- Rhos Point Books (rhospointbooks.wordpress.com)
- Cafe and Books (cafeandbooks.co.uk)
- Debunking Four Myths About John Paul I ‘Smiling Pope’ (ncronline.org)