Love for the printed book is still strong
I follow the small group of tourists.
Another step and another.
A left turn, pushing the door open and then…
‘Wow! Oh, Wow! Look!’
I wait while their heads tilt up towards the balcony, swivel from left to right and finally come to rest on the glowing wood-burning stove, surrounded by piles of books.
I expected this reaction, of course. Leakey’s Bookshop’s charm is the reason I march every visitor down Church Street at the earliest opportunity. Pointing with delight, the tourists edge into the shop and let me pass. I make a beeline for the counter where the owner, Charles Leakey, is expecting me. He bought the church building in 1992 and moved his stock of books here from his previous premises by the riverside. “I just happened to walk by,” he says. He hadn’t been in before, but decided it was worth having a look and was struck by the simple, attractive church and its potential.
Leakey discovered second-hand bookshops as a student in Birmingham where he ‘caught the bug’. He learned from a ‘most excellent bookseller’ called Stephen Wycherley who employed him straight from university and taught him the ropes. Leakey smiles, recalling the opening of new premises in Harborne, Birmingham. “It was the winter of 1975, but in came the people and there he stood by the door with a grin on his face. I thought: 'This is what I want to do'.”
Of course, second-hand bookselling was prominently portrayed in the recent bestseller Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell of the famous Wigtown Bookshop. What did Charles Leakey think of it, I wondered?
“I couldn’t really make sense of the economics in the book, but I certainly related to the cold. Keeping warm is a challenge in an old building like this!”
But while Bythell can be famously dismissive of his customers in a trademark taciturn and cynical persona, Leakey feels differently: “The customers are great!”
He enjoys the interaction and the challenge of choosing suitable books. “Second-hand books should certainly be filtered. Selection is the be all and end all. One seeks out books of quality.”
I, for one, absolutely love meandering from corner to corner in Leakey’s; looking for books here definitely has something of a treasure hunt, with something precious and rare to be unearthed at every turn.
He doesn’t know precisely how many books are in the shop at any given time, but the Scottish section, theology and natural history are popular genres and tend to sell well. The oldest book he owns, dating back to 1492 (before the arrival of the conventional printing press), is kept at home. He loves this aspect of the book trade: “One develops a knowledge of books, a sort of instinct. Daily, one is seeing new things one has never seen before and learns more.”
Is he worried about the demise of the book? Is there a future for second-hand books, with so much information available online?
Charles Leakey is rarely demonstrative, but he smiles openly at this last question: “People keep predicting the demise of the printed book, but these predictions are in error. I have confidence in books. I do.”
He serves a customer who has wandered up to the till with a couple of volumes, and thanks the man politely before turning back to me. “I like what I do,” he says. “It is about simplicity, and that is what one has to aim for in life, there’s no doubt about that.”
As a book lover, there can be few places which can inspire like Leakey’s Bookshop. Pay a visit, and you are sure to agree!