Wednesday 1 April 2015

The Secondhand Bookshops of Tunbridge Wells, or, Wot I Did on My Birthday This Year

I tend not to accord my birthdays more than a passing mention on Existential Ennui – I can't imagine they're of even passing interest to the (meagre) readership of this blog – usually post-event and in connection with whichever book I might have acquired as a result of managing to stay alive for another year. But my most recent birthday, which was last week, merits a lengthier report, I feel, as it entailed a trip to Tunbridge Wells for a mooch around the secondhand bookshops in that Royal Kentish town – a mooch which netted me one book in particular which I was absolutely cock-a-hoop to have come across.

The day got off to a pretty decent start even before we got to Tunbridge Wells, when I received this from the lovely Rachel:

A first edition of Desmond Cory's Intrigue, published by Shakespeare Head – the Australian sister publisher to British outfit Frederick Muller (although still printed in the UK, so in fact it's an export edition) – in 1954 (dust jacket designer unknown). The fourth in Cory's Johnny Fedora spy novel series, in common with other entries in that series this is quite a rare book; I can see just four other copies in any edition online at present: a Muller second impression, another Muller edition with no details as to impression or presence of dust jacket (or anything really), and two paperback editions, one under the alternate American title of Trieste. A nice addition, then, to my Fedora-in-first collection, which now numbers twelve volumes out of a possible sixteen.

And so to Tunbridge Wells, and its handful of secondhand bookshops. First port of call was here:

Ah, actually, let's skip the first port of call and go straight to the second port of call, which was here:

The Aviation Bookshop, tucked away on Vale Road. I've visited this place before, and in truth their stock doesn't really fall within my fields of interest – plus I've yet to work out how to navigate my way around that stock (books are shelved under broad subject areas, but not, as far as I can work out, in any sort of order thereafter) – but I applaud the idea of there being a bookshop devoted to aviation, and anyone with an interest in that sort of thing will doubtless find much to divert them. I, however, moved swiftly on, to here:

The Oxfam Bookshop, on Chapel Place. Unfortunately, despite the manager kindly checking the stock for obscure postwar crime and spy fiction after I'd mentioned on Twitter the previous day that I'd be popping by, there was nothing for me. And neither was there here:

The Pantiles Bookshop, on the Pantiles, oddly enough. I did spy a signed first of P. D. James's The Children of Men, but I was in two minds as to whether to buy it – I already own an unsigned first edition and I haven't even read that yet – so while I deliberated we went across the way and had tea and cake in a cafe, in which, sitting at a window table, slightly incongruously given the sedate surroundings, was Rick Parfitt of Status Quo fame and his missus. Anyway, by the time I got back to the shop, the book had gone. Parfitt left the cafe before me; perhaps it was him wot bought it, the git.

Fortunately, by that point, as you might be able to tell from the bag in my hand, I'd already had some success elsewhere, namely here:

Hall's Bookshop, which was my real reason for visiting Tunbridge Wells. Hall's has been situated on Chapel Place for decades, but last year it was taken over by London expat bookseller Adrian Harrington, who completely refurbished the joint and installed his own wares upstairs. The net result is that Hall's is now, I'd wager, one of the finest secondhand bookshops in the country: pleasant to browse in, with an excellent stock, and not bad prices. I managed to find something on the cheapo paperback racks outside even before I'd set foot in the place:

And after a thorough survey of the shelves inside – and a look at Adrian Harrington's stock upstairs, which, while fascinating, was mostly priced well beyond my means – emerged about an hour later with another two books. (Rachel found something for herself as well, plus a couple of books for Edie). To wit:

From the left, a 1963 Corgi paperback of Brian Cleeve's Assignment to Vengeance; a 1982 Granada hardback first edition of Arthur C. Clarke's sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: Odyssey Two, jacket illustration by Michel Whelan; and a 1965 Michael Joseph hardback first edition of P. M. Hubbard's The Holm Oaks, dust jacket design by the wonderfully named H. Bridgeman Grimley. Finding the Hubbard in particular was one of those secondhand bookshop moments of which one dreams but seldom gets to experience: I've been on the lookout for a first edition of The Holm Oaks, the author's fourth novel for adults (sixth overall, counting his two children's novels) and the only one of his books I didn't own in any edition, for nearly four years, so to chance upon a highly scarce first, in lovely condition, in a bookshop which was my main purpose for visiting Tunbridge Wells, was serendipitous in the extreme. Rest assured I'll be blogging about it in full before too long.