Ripping Yarns

Benjamin Markovits

There’s a second-hand bookshop around the corner from where I live called Ripping Yarns – just a hole in the wall, near a relatively busy intersection, but close to Highgate Woods. It’s been there since before the war but I’m not sure how much longer it will last. The lease is up next September, and I worry that the internet and charity bookshops will eventually drive it out of business. Celia Mitchell, the owner, has to dip into her pocket from time to time to cover costs. I buy as much as I can there, especially in the run-up to Christmas, but it doesn’t add up to much. Second-hand books are cheap.

The shop is worth more to me than the books. My daughter is six and it’s on our way home from the woods. It specialises, among other things, in old-fashioned children’s books: the Ladybird series and Enid Blyton, for example, including a few first editions. It’s got other specialities, too: crime fiction, sport and 'prewar novels' – books that advertise patented hair-oils inside the front cover, for one and six, with titles like Skinner’s Dress Suit. (First chapter: ‘Skinner Asks for a Raise.’) There’s one of those turntables in one corner, which mixes pulp titles with paperback classics, and novels that lie somewhere between: The Ginger Man, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Naked Maja.

It’s got the old bookshop smell, and a photocopy from a perfume guide about the cause of old bookshop smell, tacked to one of the shelves. (Lignin, the stuff that keeps trees from ‘adopting the weeping habit’, is related to vanillin, which is why old bookstores smell so sweet.) On sunny days, in the street, someone spreads out trays full of titles for a pound: Adam Bede, The Undercover Aliens (by A.E. van Vogt), poetry from the University of Virginia.

Second-hand are like cultural tree-rings: you can see inside them the books that sold in quantity decade by decade. Felicia Hemans, Walter Scott, the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, The Pumpkin Eater, James Bond, Bridget Jones.

I lived near two great second-hand shops as a kid: Half-Price Books in Austin, which used to sell every title at half its original retail price. (I once picked up a Moby-Dick from the 1950s for 23 cents. They rounded up.) And Keith Fawlkes books in Hampstead, which is still going, though it’s smaller than it used to be, and on weekends they line Flask Walk with bits of furniture, picture frames and pottery for sale. When I was 15 I bought a night-blue edition of Shelley’s Collected Works there for two pounds. Probably half the books on my poetry shelf come from Keith Fawlkes.

I’d like to think that my children will be able to go to Ripping Yarns when they’re ten and 15, and older. Maybe they’ll have Kindles by then, but you can’t cast your eye over the shelves of a Kindle and stumble on The Bird of Dawning or The Weekend Book or All Passion Spent.

Of course, if it means so much to me I should be willing to pay for it. And the truth is, I am – which is really the point of this blog post. I want to know if other people would be willing to pay, too. To keep a shop like Ripping Yarns going I’d happily pay a subscription, say two or three pounds a month, if enough other people were willing to pay something similar. A kind of membership fee, along Co-op lines. There’s no reason to think that the value of a shop should equal the value of the goods you buy from it. And maybe there are other ways to pay for a High Street we’d like to live near.


  • 23 December 2012 at 2:01pm
    WendyR says:
    I think this is an excellent idea, and would certainly be happy to contribute in such a way.

  • 30 December 2012 at 6:55pm
    xpat says:
    A sweet article commemorating a rapidly vanishing world. Unfortunately the proposed solution -- "To keep a shop like Ripping Yarns going I’d happily pay a subscription, say two or three pounds a month, if enough other people were willing to pay something similar. A kind of membership fee, along Co-op lines" -- strikes me as highly utopian as it would take a LOT of subscriptions to cover even non-high street rents.

    In the pre-cyber era I witnessed the decline of ssveral booksellers' districts due rent gouging. Add to that all the booksellers' woes of the past decade: competition from charity shops, internet bookselling, print on demand, ebooks and a generally tanking economy throughout the developed world and it isn't a very attractive trade to get into -- or to remain in.

    The only place where I have seen very small scale brick & mortar secondhand booksellers thriving, more or less, is in cities where the city planners have had the wisdom to subsidise low-rent booksellers' stalls. A hundred of these small stalls concentrated in one small area becomes a great attraction for a metropole's bibliophiles, and allows booksellers to if not prosper then survive. Examples: Madrid's Retiro Park, Cairo's Ezbekiya Gardens -- both modelled after the Paris Seine bookstalls.

    And as we adjust to the new normal of small-scale survival strategies perhaps this would be an excellent idea to try somewhere in the UK.