1989: The Statesman, Delhi: Bill Aitken.
1991: The Sunday Telegraph: Tony Parker.
1991: drif's guide.
1992: Hampstead and Highgate Express: Brian Viner.
1996: You magazine: Libby Purves.
1999: Book and Magazine Collector: Ronald Blythe.
2003: 'Something Might Happen', by Julie Myerson.
2009: The Independent: John Walsh.
2011: Suffolk magazine: Martin Newell.
2011: The Daily Telegraph: Joanne O'Connor.
2011: The Sunday Telegraph: Matt Murphy.
2013: theguardian.com: Richard Lea.
1989: from "Literary Landmarks V", by Bill Aitken in the Statesman, Delhi, 5th June.
Other literary attributes I found in the neighbouring village of Westleton where the men of Dunwich repair to shop. A Primitive Methodist chapel in the prescribed red brick of the 1860's has been converted into a rambling secondhand bookshop cum art gallery. It's delightfully distracted custodian who preferred the Indian mode of daylighting in his pyjamas kept an empty tin can with a stick alongside for banging to attract a sale. Invariably when a customer tentatively struck the makeshift gong the owner's head would pop up from the crypt and ask if anyone would like coffee. Between the shelves were randomly strewn armchairs to promote the art of browsing from a tiresome scrutiny to a fulfilling climax. After three weeks of the chilly blast of caged Saxon formality the atmosphere was like a warm waft of the disintegrated East. In an overflow of Vedantic welcome the armchairs shed their stuffed bliss and underpinned the doctrine of immanence.
[Aitken is a Scot who had lived in India for years, and was doing a tour of Britain.]
1991: Tony Parker, "In the Second-Hand Bookshops", from The Sunday Telegraph, January 20th.
Tony Parker has £25 to spend on three books.
THE PRIMITIVE Methodist chapel in the Suffolk village of Westleton was erected in 1865, but it is unlikely - even in its heyday - to have attracted as many visitors as it does now. This is not because there has been an upsurge of religious belief in Suffolk - but because Robert Jackson, who lives there, has converted it into a highly unusual attraction for second-hand book-buyers.
On a good day in summer the line of parked Volvos and Range Rovers and caravans and 2CVs and bicycles outside often stretches the entire length of the village street.
Chapel Books & Gallery, usually open seven days a week in the afternoons, does not need to advertise: its customers discover it, come back again, and tell their friends about it, who do the same. Inside, books of all kinds and conditions, from the falling apart to the almost-brand-new, jostle for space. Some are roughly arranged on shelves, others are in piles on tables or chairs or in cartons.
Classification ranges fron the conventional "Fiction" or "Sociology" to the idiosyncratic: "Unpopular Novels, 5 for 50p". Hand-written notices proliferate: "10% discount for students, single parents and unemployed", "Some prices open to revision".
There would certainly be a reduction on an incomplete 15-year run of lbis, the British Ornithologists' Journal, offered for £160. And possibly a surprise if you inquired, say, for The Cherry Orchard. Mr Jackson's response could be: "I've got one, but I don't want to sell it because I want to read it again myself. I'll lend it to you though, for a week if you like."
I bought, for £8, a beautifully fresh copy of The Weekend Book (Nonesuch Press, 1955) and, for £7, Michael Hamburger's splendid Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1984). And a real find, worth more than the £10 I paid for its curiosity value alone: The Journal of William Dowsing (printed by the Ancient House, Ipswich, in 1885). He was appointed in 1643 as "Parliamentary Visitor for Demolishing Superstitious Pictures & Ornaments Etc in the Churches of Suffolk". Now I know why so many have plain glass windows.
[He had actually bought the Dowsing book elsewhere, but asked my permission to include it as if bought here.]
1991: "drif's guide To the Secondhand & Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain" (pp109-111) by drif field [aka driffield]. ISBN 0-9510005-3-5.
CHAPEL BOOKS, Westleton, Suffolk
usually open 7 days a week, afternoons (often 11-6 in summer) but always Sat & Sun 2-5 at least. BTR Westleton-616 to check)
And that gives the game away, you just know that this is not going to be any ordinary bksp. Those hours read like the announcements the vicar used to make before he got into boring you properly with the sermon. This establishment is the good book by other means. On the outside it claims to be a Primitive Methodist Chapel, on the inside...
I telephone and a voice tells me to come to the side door, how did he know I was trade? Maybe even god uses the tradesman's entrance in a Primitive Methodist Chapel. Maybe he is a spiritualist? At the side door there is a notice saying: Knock Loudly. Surely if he is a Spiritualist he should know when I have arrived. I knock, nothing happens, I knock again, nothing happens, I rattle the letterbox and still nothing happens. I remember the poem which begins: "Is there anybody there said the Traveller?" I can see carved into the wall a sign saying 'Primitive Methodist School'. Maybe they are only trainee Spiritualists. I look for something to hit the door with: a battering ram, bazooka, a thermic lance, but none of these are handy. I begin to have my doubts, this is no ordinary English village; it is nothing like Ambridge, they would have had all those things ready. Suddenly the door opens, and I realise I was thinking of the wrong poem. It should have been the next one down the page: The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. I will never make it as a spiritualist, and why don't they teach you useful poems at school.
He is dressed in a woolly hat, anorak and pyiamas, he seems surprised at my appearance, maybe I should not wear a coat in the country, but it is cold, especially here. He says that he thought I was not coming. He cannot be a spiritualist then, maybe he is a Hare Krishna, but then I remember I have not seen any Hare's for a long time. Maybe they made a takeover bid for the Primitive Methodists. He leads me in, I hope he is not leading me on. This is no ordinary chapel, it is crammed with books most of which do not appear to be unpacked yet. There are several other piles covered in rough clothes which I am instructed not to touch. Can these be dead Primitive Methodists? Losers in the takeover war? Or maybe they just died of the cold.
Surely these are not the books with which they taught young Primitive Methodists: advanced Calculus, maybe they are the books that Hare Krishna's read: Maybe there are spiritualists who come to this school.
On the walls there are pictures of babies, this must have been a school for very young Primitive Methodists. I can hear a child's voice, but I thought Hare Krishna's were celibate, maybe he is a failed Hare Krishna. I certainly know why the children did not get any older, they all froze to death. If Captain Oates had gone to a Primitive Methodist School he would still be alive today.
When he returned from something he made sure I did not see, I ask him about the Primitive Methodists, why did they need a chapel so large? He says they were mainly fishermen, and that they came from all over. They must have been some fishermen, the nearest coast is ten miles. Maybe this is where they learnt to freeze fish and went off and started the fish finger industry. Sure as hell mine were frozen. When you mention the books he changes, a warmth comes over him, perhaps it is his only source of heat. I ask how the books are priced and he says I can have anything I want for any amount I want.
A friend of mine used to work in an office in Oxford Street, on his way back from lunch a Hare Krishna would come up to him, and almost everybody else and hand him a record. The HK would then ask for a donation. My friend used to wait outside his office until a HK did this to him, he would take the record and then go inside and lock the door. The Hare Krishna's got a bit fed up with this and the head HK, if that is the right term, went off and got a policeman. Together they went to my friend's office and the HK demanded his record back. "But you gave it to me!" said my friend. "And you are supposed to give a donation!" screamed the HK. My friend asked the policeman if a donation had to be given. The policeman wiped the smile off his face and said that he did not think so. My friend then put his newly acquired record in the cupboard with his other sixteen HK records. When the devotee saw this he took a swipe at my friend. Which only goes to show that if you have a belief in religion you will be able to find a policeman when you need one.
Woolly hat returns and asks if I would like some coffee. I say yes, anything to keep warm, when he leaves I cannot concentrate on the books. Maybe the fishermen used to walk the ten miles from the coast in an effort to keep warm.Woolly hat returns, he has a jug of water, and a jar of coffee. Maybe this is the primitive method. "Ignore the prices!" he says. "Just pay what you feel." I feel nothing, but I am not as brave as my friend with the records. "Aren't you going to drink your coffee?" he asks. I wonder if he has put something in it. "I don't know how to make coffee," I said. He goes off again... I hope it is not on a quest to find a book on how to make coffee. I make a run for the door, it is barred. He comes back and says if you want me, you are supposed to bang this tin. What is he? Iron Man? And... "could you sign the book before you leave"? I look at it and can hardly see a name in it. If I put my name on that book did it mean that I would have to become a Hare Krishna/ Primitive Methodist for the next seven years. There is one good thing about the cold, it has killed off all the silverfish. When he returns I tell him I have signed, and before he can look I give him a £20 note, the books I have just grabbed come to £9. When he adds it up the total is £5.50. Maybe that is why they threw him out of the Hare Krishna's he was giving money to the people instead of asking for it. Or maybe it is the Primitive Methodist school of arithmetic. He looks at the money as if it was a strange apparition and tells me I will have to come again. I had not the courage to ask him the same thing.
[Drif's guides ('The only guide that's been there') were a phenomenon for a few years, chaotic, insulting and often hilarious, as well as being fairly informative. The above fantasia was the longest entry in this edition. He had visited after I closed on a February evening. The child's voice he reports hearing was my infant daughter who was sitting on his shoulders some of the time: he wouldnt let me photograph this.]
1992: from Brian Viner's "Gentility without fustiness" (an article about Southwold), in the Hampstead and Highgate Express, 18th September.
If it's not beach weather, then I recommend a short drive south to the tiny museum at Dunwich, which records how a bustling port gradually slipped into the sea, or if you're a spotter of great English eccentrics, to the secondhand bookshop at Westleton, a topsy-turvy warehouse of a place run by a baby-faced bibliophile with a shock of grey hair who wanders around barefoot, often wearing pyjamas and sometimes just a towel, and solicitously offers a cup of tea or coffee to every browser.
1996: Libby Purves, in "YOU" magazine, 28th July, in "Address Book Secrets":
Find something old and comforting to read at Chapel Books. If you can find the proprietor, Bob, under the latest heap of literature in this ex-chapel, you might get a cup of coffee as you browse through Jung and Bunty annuals. Bliss.
1999: Ronald Blythe, interviewed by R.M.Healey in The Book and Magazine Collector, Issue 187, October.
I still go to old bookshops and find nice editions. The other day I visited one in Westleton and came across a lovely collection of short stories by A.E. Coppard, which I bought.
I don't collect as a real collector might, though I love old bookshops.
Do you have any favourite ones ?
Well, the other day we went to that funny one in Westleton where the proprietor wears his pyjamas all day long. It's in a kind of old Methodist Chapel. ....
2003: Julie Myerson, in 'Something Might Happen' (Cape, 2003). Her novel is set entirely in Southwold, except here, when the protagonist, Tess, and the policeman, Lacey, drive to Westleton.
Where are you taking me? he asks.
I laugh. You'll see.
Just a place I know. A funny place. You'll like it.
The bookshop is in an old chapel with a corrugated roof and dense thickets of nettles and brambles growing on either side. Opposite is a post office and general store combined, where you can buy shampoo or stamps, painkillers or home-made coffee & walnut cake.
Unlike the post office, the bookshop is always open. Always open and always deadly quiet except for the twitter of the starlings that nest in the roof. Inside, old books are piled everywhere and in all directions - on the floor, up to the ceiling and up each and every wall, some of the piles so high you feel they might curl right up over the arched ceiling and come creeping down the opposite wall.
Other stuff is also piled almost to the ceiling, tin boxes, broken chairs, old bedspreads, spider plants spilling over.
Lacey looks around him.
You like books? he says.
Yes, I say, I do like books. Do you?
He says nothing, just laughs to himself.
Some are stacked in formal glass cabinets, others crammed into cardboard boxes that are in their turn balanced on old wooden step ladders or spilling out of metal filing cabinets.
There's quite a bit of handwritten labelling and a system of sorts. Health, cookery, DIY, crime, history, France, Egypt and nature studies. And religion and philosophy and fiction, as well as Rupert Bear and sci-fi and sixties TV programmmes. On the dusty brick walls are strange canvases of twisting, fleeting figures and shapes, all done in oils, many of them for sale.
Up in the area that you might call the till - though certainly nothing like a till is in sight - is an upturned Carr's biscuit tin and a broken wooden spoon. And next to it, a felt-tipped sign done on corrugated cardboard: Bang With Stick On Tin For Attention.
Shall I bang? Lacey asks me.
No! I whisper. Don't you dare.
The owner doesn't seem to be around. He never is. There's no one else in the place at all and no sound except for rain coming down outside. Or maybe it's inside as well, for some kind of creeper grows through the upper windows which seem to be pretty much wide open to the elements. Above our heads, bare light bulbs hang, attached to strings at different levels.
I undo my coat.
Have a look around, I tell him.
I'm going to fiction, I say. I think he might follow me but he doesn't. I glance back and see he has picked up a book and is leafing through it already.
Hey! he calls softly after a moment or two. Tess! Come over here.
He's not where I left him. Following his voice, I make my way between birdlife of East Anglia and Norwegian cookery. He is in the furthest corner of the shop, a little book-lined room all of its own, with a metal step-ladder on wheels and a stack of empty cardboard boxes in the corner.
Look, he says. Come here.
What? I say softly.
He's holding a book in his hands.
This, he says. Looking at me and waiting.
I stand there, too hot now in my coat.
What? I say. Look at what?
Here, he says. Come here.
And I move right over to him. The book is small and heavy and old, with a shiny tassel of a bookmark.
I hold out my hand.
Let me see -
But he doesn't give me the book or pass it so I can look. Instead he puts it gently down and reaches forward and opens my coat. Pulls it wide open and holds it by the stiff wool lapels - and pulls me closer.
No, I say, laughing and resisting.
No, I say more seriously. You mustn't.
Oh, Tess -
I can't do this.
You're not doing anything. I'm doing it.
I look up at the shelves. A sign above me says Miscellaneous Theories.
He doesn't let go.
Are we in Religion? I ask him.
I feel him looking at me - at my shoulders or my neck or my face.
I blush hard.
Why are we in Religion? I whisper as he pulls me closer still and I smell the unfamiliar smell of his breath, see the shadows on his skin, the way the hair brushes his ears.
It's the quietest, he says.
I put my face near to his neck. A pulse is banging there. I've done it now, I think.
But the whole place is quiet, I tell him.
I know, he whispers and he puts a hand on my head, pulls me to him, but this bit's the quietest.
His skin is warm.
I've never done this, I say as I feel the worry and the confusion of it and the mixed-up swish of both our bloods banging against each other.
Why? What are we doing? he says.
I don't know.
[p236, and pp239-243]
2009: John Walsh in The Independent: Tuesday, 19th May: 'The Great Escape: England's Ultimate Tranquil Retreats' (excerpt):
Westleton is achingly picturesque, with a cute duck-pond, and a patch of greensward on which you can imagine ancient locals playing cricket against the Dunwich XI. An old red phone-box is overhung with foliage. A war memorial celebrates 18 dead men from the Second World War. The Union Flag flaps in the breeze beside the village hall, and the churchyard of St Peter's is a wildlife sanctuary crammed with speedwell and mouse-ear hawkweed. It could not be more peaceful and conducive to stress-free thoughts. And it was there I met a chap who is the living embodiment of relaxedness.
He's Robert Jackson, and he runs Chapel Books, a second-hand shop that used to be, er, a chapel. Jackson came to Suffolk from London when his father was dying, and decided to stick around. The estate agents told him about an abandoned chapel and he bought it cheap. He used it as a space for holding art exhibitions by his friends, but was constantly taken over by local delinquents. An etiolated figure with mad-professor straggly white hair and a red woolly hat apparently borrowed from an elderly aunt, Jackson is an 18-carat, force-10 eccentric. On his desk sits a large can and a stick. A sign says: "BASH CAN WITH STICK TO GET ATTENTION". Another sign warns that security is tight in the bookshop and anyone who attempts to steal a book "will hear a bell ring - in your head!"
"How would I describe the area?" he asked. "Westleton has a lot of second homes and retired people, and a high proportion of weekenders - there aren't many young folk around. But it's a very friendly community. This village is on the tourist map because of the duck pond and because it's on the road to Dunwich, which is desolate but has a lot of mystique." He didn't sound very positive about his adopted home. Which area did he like best? "I love Westleton Heath. There are some lovely walks. The heath is covered in gorse and silver-studded blue butterflies, and there are nightingales at the moment..." (Now here, I told myself, is a man who can teach us all that there is nothing really worth stressing about in life.) "And you get used," he concluded, "to the sight of the Sizewell reactors after a while."
Whaaat? So that's what they were. The rectangular monstrosity I'd seen while driving up the coast was Sizewell 1, the huge white golfball beside it was Sizewell 2. "They're trying to build a third," said Jackson with unshakeable calm, "I expect it'll be a pyramid or something. It's not very nice to think what might happen. I give some support to the Stop Sizewell campaign, but I'm not bothered by it on a daily basis." He yawned. "I think we'll probably be all right..."
I left him there, offering lunchtime tea and coffee to passing browsers, with a Home Counties Chernobyl seething nearby.
2011: from Martin Newell's "For whom the bells toll", in the April issue of Suffolk magazine.
Westleton's best-kept secret, however, is its extraordinary second-hand bookshop, located in an old chapel on the main road, near the Green. For 30-odd years I've popped in there only sporadically. It never changes.
When you walk into the Chapel Bookshop, the first thing you'll notice is the sweet, dusty smell of old books. There are more books here than you can shake a stick at and yet no one seems to be in attendance.
That's when you'll see an old tin with a stick next to it. There's a hand-written notice which requests that you bang the tin with the stick if you require attention. Now Bob will materialise from a back room, silently - like Mr Tumnus from behind a snow-laded fir tree - and he will ask you if you'd like tea or coffee.
Robert Jackson, the Chapel Bookshop's softly-spoken eccentric owner, originally wanted to run an art gallery. He fell into running a bookshop, almost by default, he claims. There are old sofas for you to sit upon. The shop seems unguarded, although, there used to be a sign which warned that if you nicked a book, an alarm would go off in your head.
The book stock can be pleasingly esoteric. There are volumes of the Victorian mystic, Madam Blavatsky's work here, for instance. There's also a small stock of vintage vinyl records wherein I found, among other things, a first pressing of The Beatles A Hard Day's Night. The Westleton bookshop, Dunwich beach and The White Horse pub; no tour operator is ever likely to sell you this package. I would.
2011: from Joanne O'Connor's "Read all about it - the perfect literary retreat" (about taking some books on holiday with her to Thorpeness): The Daily Telegraph, 30th July.
A visit to a bookshop seemed a fitting end to my reading retreat, so in the afternoon I drove into the nearby village of Westleton to visit Chapel Books. Bibliophiles from near and far come to worship at this temple to second-hand books in a former Methodist chapel. As I entered, the sweet, musty smell of old paper was intoxicating. It appeared to be deserted so I found a battered old armchair and passed a very happy hour browsing through old Bunty annuals and Enid Blyton books.
This nostalgic reverie was interrupted by the appearance of an unkempt white-haired man from behind one of the shelves. "Cup of tea?" he asked. I decided I had found book nirvana.
2011: one of seven European destinations recommended by Matt Murphy, owner of the London boutique B Store, in the 'Little black book' feature ("Secret Addresses from Stylish People") in the Stella magazine section of the Sunday Telegraph, 18th September.
Chapel Books, Suffolk. Tucked inside an old chapel in sleepy Westleton, this used to be an art gallery and has slowly evolved into a second-hand and rare bookshop. The owner can generally be found inside playing loud jazz, but if he's not visible there's an old petrol can and stick to bang, should you want to summon him.
2013: Richard Lea, on theguardian.com, Monday 12th August: "What's your route to the best independent bookshops? Give us your tips for a holiday trip round the best of the UK's independent bookshops"
A call for help from Kate McKenzie, who's been in touch about her plans for a summer holiday. Surely a query for the travel desk, you say. But hold on a minute. Apparently Kate's brewing up a plan to travel around the UK and visit "as many independent bookshops as possible". Which is where we come in.
After waxing lyrical about our interactive map of independent bookshops, boasting 319 reports of excellent independent bookshops as of this morning, she comes to the nub of the issue:
Just wondering if you've got a suggested tour that might include some of the best recommendations.
Well, frankly, no. We haven't. But maybe we could brew up a couple of bookish itineraries right here.
For starters, I'd suggest passing through Suffolk, or more particularly Chapel Books in Westleton, a dusty treasure trove of secondhand marvels. I came across it a couple of years ago, and remember an excellent selection of contemporary US fiction, some beautiful art books and a children's section with a comfy old armchair for making sure you really have found the right thing after all.
There's the added advantage of finding yourself in the heart of an area steeped in literature - the empty beaches of Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, the shadowy mists of MR James's Aldeburgh, the crumbling grandeur of China Miéville's Covehithe.
According to the map, you're not a million miles away from the Browser's Bookshop, and The Aldeburgh Bookshop is close at hand - surely the beginnings of a brief bookshop tour already. But where should Kate head next? Over to you ...