Wednesday, 11 September 2013

You never forget your first love

On 23rd April, 1995, at the age of 15, my love of books was transformed beyond all recognition.

This was the first day of the now annual World Book Day, and I had been given a £1 book token.

It may seem quite a small thing to change a life, and indeed at the time of the presentation I rather felt it was preaching to the converted as my love of reading was no secret, but for that reason I decided I had to really make the most of my pound and use it for something different.

And so I made my way to W D Wharton, the independent bookshop serving Wellingborough in Northamptonshire.

I’d walked past it many times on my way from school to the town centre but always felt too shy to go in. I wasn’t particularly experienced with bookshops and had been to a library only a handful of times since leaving primary school, which meant a proper, dedicated bookshop wasn’t somewhere I felt entitled to enter. Instead I’d borrowed books from friends and family or even school, or settled for the limited selection WHSmith had to offer while trying out the coloured pens.

But this day was different. Book token in hand, I felt I had an invitation to finally enter the bookshop.

I won’t pretend to remember how I got on during that first visit, I can’t remember what I bought and I can only lay claim to the date because of Wikipedia, but I do remember the change it brought about.

It opened my eyes to the fact a bookshop wasn’t the terrifying place or elite club I’d imagined. No one told me off for being there or criticised my choice of book, and I didn’t feel out of place among the other shoppers as we were all focussed on the rows of books and the delights they contained. It also opened up my world to a wider selection of books than I’d previously encountered. I was a convert.

Since then I’ve explored a number of bookshops and I hope to visit many more, but even though it’s been about 15 years since I visited the town, the bookshop of W D Wharton still holds a special place in my heart.

I admit, the front of the bookshop is vague in my mind, and I couldn’t even remember its name until I came to look it up last week, but the inside – the man behind the counter; the shelves of books, especially the classics which became my go-to area; and even the way the light fell through the window, all stick with me. As does the memory of some of the books I bought: I’m pretty certain my original copy of my all-time favourite read, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, would have been purchased during one of my visits.

Sadly I’m unable to revisit W D Wharton as it closed in the spring of 2000, but the love affair with bookshops it inspired is very much alive. And now - as I’m still just setting out on my adventure to explore bookshops around the country - I can’t help but wonder where my love of books and bookshops would be if I’d never been given that £1 book token and opened the door to a different world.

12 comments:

  1. My first bookshop was The Hereford Bookseller, where in my early teens, I think, I would sit and marvel at the books, mostly upstairs in the kids' section, for an hour or so while my mum was shopping in Tesco a couple of hundred metres away. Neither shop exists anymore: THB is possibly an Accessorize now, while the old Tesco was turned into a McDonald's when a bigger Tesco opened.

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    1. Hello David, thank you for sharing the bookshop. I love hearing about these places and the way people remember them so I'm glad you got the ball rolling. Even if I am sorry to hear the bookshop doesn't exist any more. I'm also sorry I didn't recognise you!

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  2. This post is magical. My first independent bookshop was Broadhursts in Southport and I found it mesmerising - I must have been 7 or 8 and still happily go back there when I'm in my home town.
    The winding narrow stairs were the best thing when I was small and it genuinely felt like an adventure.

    Thanks for this post :D

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    1. How lovely, I'll be sure to look it up to go on the adventure myself. I love such details in bookshops, it's part of what makes each one unique. I'm glad you shared it with me. Thank you.

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    2. Hello Erica, this was my bookshop. Set up by my grandfather (who died in 1925!) I was there from leaving school in 1965 until I closed it in 2000. I had planned to hand it down to my children, but the supermarkets had taken away the profitable bestsellers, and this was before the impact of the internet. I have not been idle since, as a volunteer setting up the Wellingborough Museum which has an active book section in its gift shop, but mainly local history. Perhaps I'll see you there sometime? I am flattered that my old shop is so fondly remembered, and it is frequently mentioned on the Facebook page 'Wellingborough Now & Then'.

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    3. Hello Robert. Thank you for your comment, I'm so glad you don't mind me writing about your bookshop as I worried I didn't do it justice. I'll definitely be paying the museum a visit next time I'm in the county - it's good to know a memory of the bookshop is represented in the town.

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    4. Erica, your story could be my story. I left the country at the age of 11, but I spent so many magical hours at Wharton's to spend my book tokens. I remember buying the entire set of Arthur Ransome's Swallows & Amazons collection, one book at a time. Funny what your remember, isn't it?

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    5. Alison, thank you for this comment. It's always good to hear when someone else loved a bookshop as much as I did but to also know you have such excellent taste in books and have completed a quest I'm in the middle of makes me even happier.

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  3. I always remember visiting Hudsons in Birmingham (now Waterstones) as a youngster with my dad. This large bookshop had about four floors and my interests lay in the military and aviation section in the basement. It must be over thirty years ago but the real magic was the long staircase down to that wonderfully haphazard and ill lit grotto - about six small inter-connected square rooms stuffed floor to ceiling with books. I think it was these book-buying adventures that really got me into not only history but books and reading in general as each visit was a real treasure hunt. Somewhere I've still got my treasured "Military Uniforms of the World" book token folder that I was given for my 10th birthday.
    Of course it may never have actually been anything like I remember it, but that don't really matter.

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    1. You're right - the memory is what matters, and that's a lovely one. Thank you for sharing

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    2. I remember Hudsons in Birmingham as my first bookshop when I was 12, I saw Derek Nimmo reading A Pictorial History of Horror Films by Denis Gifford on tv and I asked my mum if I could have it, she took me to Birmingham and we went into Husons and she bought it for me for £1.95,and forty years on I still have it in my collection.

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    3. Thanks for sharing! This is a lovely story and I'm pleased you still have the book as a reminder of your visit.

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