Goodbye to a Bookshop
In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, published in 1978 but set in the late 1950s (and based on her experience in a Southwold bookshop), Florence Green decides to open the only bookshop in Hardborough, a place with no fish and chips, no cinema, no laundrette, an ‘island between sea and river’. Ripping Yarns, the Highgate bookshop which will close on Sunday, is on a sort of island too, between Highgate Village and Muswell Hill.
Its quiet stretch of Archway Road has been slow to catch up with its flashier neighbours; it’s the only bit that feels as it did in the 1980s when I was growing up there: slightly forgotten, old-fashioned, closer to the past than the future. Ripping Yarns was a second home to lots of actors and poets, who worked there or just sat around on piles of books to chat, but the arty North London leftist community has faded too.
Celia Hewitt took over the shop in the 1970s. She was working between acting jobs at the antique shop next door when the bookshop came up for sale. She thought of all the suitcases of books that were left at the antique shop, and of her own house full of the books that she and her husband, Adrian Mitchell, picked up around the country. The antique dealer said he would pass on the books he received (he never did), and with the help of Adrian and a bookseller friend from Yorkshire, as well as Michael Palin and Terry Jones who came to read at the opening night, and two Australian girls who made cakes, the bookshop opened.
It specialised in children’s books – Hewitt has an excellent eye for illustration – and poetry, but as a neighbourhood shop had to do a bit of everything and ended up doing a lot more. There always seemed to be towers of encyclopedias, rows of Pelican books, Observer guides, socialist pamphlets, boxes of ephemera, rare editions and, like the bookshop in Fitzgerald's novel, ‘technical works on pebble-polishing, sailing, pony clubs, wild flowers and birds, local maps and guide books’. It opened on Sundays so grandmothers taking their charges to Highgate Woods could pop in (as mine did with me), especially if it was raining.
In the old days people would buy eight or ten trashy novels for their summer holiday, drop in for Christmas and birthday presents, find things they didn’t know they wanted – books on the SAS or chamber music or 18th-century recipes – or couldn't find elsewhere: Peter O’Toole looking for Boy’s Own magazines for his autobiography; Japanese collectors. A steady stream came in just to talk and stroke the dog: a mixture of local regulars, actor-types and the lost or despairing. I wonder where they go now. You can’t despair in Waterstones. I wonder where the books go too – the old circuit of smalltown bookshops, dealers and salesman and auctioneers has moved onto the internet, like many but not all of the bookshop’s old functions.
It’s hard not to be sentimental when you see the closing down sign on your childhood bookshop: we take it for granted that it will always be there – always struggling but always there. Ripping Yarns looks exactly as a bookshop should: chequered forecourt, boxes of books on stools on the pavement, a bright handwritten sign and, taking up most of the window, a cut-out of a massive tree with the Cheshire Cat in it and Alice peering up (John Tenniel’s drawing). Celia’s theatre friends helped create the different windows over the years: when Just William ended up in the bin he scared the dustmen.
Celia isn't sentimental. She’s been subsidising the shop for years and the lease would’ve run out in 2018 – enough time to get rid of some books and slow down gracefully – but a sudden, back-dated rent hike means that’s no longer possible. It isn't that funds couldn't be raised to help: there are still plenty of the old poets and actors (and some new ones) who would help – Tariq Ali has offered to lie down in the road to save it (possibly as an art piece with Tilda Swinton) – but it's too much fuss now.