Lord Street, in the small Victorian seaside town of Southport in Lancashire, has the airs and graces of Paris. Except that, if you’re to believe the locals, it’s the tree-lined avenues of Paris which have the airs and graces of Lord Street: the exiled Napoleon III lived here before he became king of France and afterwards he had Paris rebuilt in the same style. In any case, Lord Street is the main shopping street of Southport which you can’t avoid en route from the railway station to the pier (there’s a lovely stretch of sandy beach too although you’d have to question the sanity of anyone who wanted to go for a swim in the Irish Sea) and in between two bright and modern shops with their sparkling clean plate-glass windows, belonging to well-known chains, there is a narrow and uninspiring passageway.
At the end of the passageway you’ll find an old-fashioned and overcrowded shop that I cannot in a clear conscience simply call a bookshop although it does sell books.
When it’s open, it’s recognisable by the shelves put out into the passage, full of shells, minerals and tattered paperbacks. I mean genuinely tattered paperbacks. Inside there are boxfuls of small, polished, coloured stones at pocket money prices, geodes and fossils on shelves, random items of old jewellery in glass cases, statuettes, interestingly shaped book-ends… all sorts of curiosities, in fact. Antiquities even, I swear. The old gentleman who runs the shop lets you wander and handle whatever takes your fancy – bar what’s behind glass – with hardly giving you a glance. His faith in humanity, in people not simply pocketing a conch or two in the passage outside but coming in, finding him at the back of the shop and paying him is touching. Or very English.
The shop puts you in mind of the library of the Unseen University by Terry Pratchett: L-Space. When you first go in, it seems tiny: you go to the table bang in your way, fiddle with the amethyst, the agate and the obsidian, you’re drawn to the geodes on the shelves, you examine the shark teeth. Then you notice that behind the glass cabinets on the other side there’s more space; books and vinyl records. And past them, a bit more space. After a while you notice that there’s also a narrow staircase by the entrance leading up to a second floor. Upstairs, the experience repeats: behind every shelf there is another. Except here there are no geodes, book-ends or shells, just old books. Lots of old books. A couple more floors of them, in fact.
And what books!… The good folk of Southport evidently read an astonishing variety of literature in times gone by: a practical grammar of the Khmer language comes to my mind straight away. It was tucked away in the farthest corner on the top floor, among other foreign language curiosities. I wonder if anybody ever climbed up there other than me: you have to be a linguist to want to. (Certainly the rest of my family called a halt a floor or two below among the natural sciences.) I just followed my nose (the smell of old books was stronger the higher you climbed) and the hand-written sign for linguistics. It was certainly worth the climb: there were French murder mysteries, Machiavelli and books in Sanskrit. And of course the Khmer grammar: I was so intrigued I nearly bought it. I mean you have to wonder. Even if Lord Street did inspire the avenues of Paris, Southport is most certainly not London. Who could the Khmer grammar have belonged to? A retired consul who was once posted in Phnom Penh?… Or was it left behind in a hotel by a visiting French archeologist? I considered my chances for visiting Angkor Wat for a while; in the end, I contented myself with a fifty-year-old Leeds University textbook on Spanish ballads.
Not to mention the heavy pair of carved stone elephant bookends, that is. Plus an eclectic collection of fossils, geodes, minerals and half a dozen Enid Blyton novels that the other family members insisted on buying.
Who says that real bookshops are doomed in the age of internet?