You’re walking along a suburban street in 1960s England. On either side there are myriad shops, a bakers, a greengrocers, a newsagents, an old-fashioned furniture store, an antique dealer… then finally you come to a halt outside a bookshop. Not like today’s brash chains displaying neat rows of the top twenty hardbacks with 20% off stickers, but instead an assortment of eye-catching titles displayed individually. In front of the window is a rack of second-hand hardbacks whilst close by are revolving stands of paperbacks.
You push open the door and catch that smell that can only come from books – new and second hand. You squeeze past browsing customers towards the back of the shop and sitting on a chair is a handsome brown-eyed man wearing a tweed jacket and mismatched trousers. On his lap is a tray with a meal bought from the café across the street. Although he is clearly enjoying his steak pie and veg his eyes are everywhere, guarding his domain. A customer enquires about an obscure title, ‘preferably a second-hand edition’ and after a second he replies:
“Upstairs, middle room, second shelf up and halfway along the row’”.
And of course, it was!
My father was one of a kind. Very clever, funny, quick-tempered and somewhat eccentric. Born in the East End of London into a Catholic family, his mother wouldn’t allow him to take up the scholarship he was offered because it was a state school. As an adult he took night classes to further educate himself. During the depression he started selling books from a barrow in the market and in the 1940s moved to the South Coast where he met my mother and set up his own bookshop. There truly was something magical about the place – you felt drawn in – and people would journey miles to visit. He worked incredibly long hours (including Sunday mornings) and we often said he was married to the shop.
At the back of the shop was an office. His till was a cashbox and we had to write down everything sold in a notebook and then total the sales in our heads. Near that till was an electric kettle which was not just for making tea – he used to boil eggs in it! Back in the sixties over Easter, the sweetshops sold candy eggs with chocolate inside. They looked exactly like a regular egg and as a joke one year, I added one to his eggs carton. I had assumed that as soon as he felt it he’d realise it wasn’t a real egg and I forgot about it – until one day he came racing out of the office shouting “Coll, come and look, it’s a phenomenon, I boiled this egg and now there’s this brown stuff clinging to the element of the kettle!
He used to send me to the bank with a week’s takings stuffed into a brown paper bag so that no-one would guess what lay inside. One day the bag split and notes and coins went rolling across the pavement! He was of the belief that snow perished leather and I can still remember the embarrassment one winter of having to fetch him fish and chips with brown paper bags on my shoes.
He was also a gifted mimic and one day we were waiting for the family doctor to arrive: a large, red-faced Irishman who used to ask us a riddle and dispense chocolate to us if we answered correctly. My father was mimicking him saying: “the top of the morning to you, it’s a fine day, so it is”. He didn’t notice our doctor walking in behind him until it was too late.
Dad passed away at the end of the seventies but he is often in my thoughts. I still miss him and I am so grateful to have had such a character for a father. The eccentricity was in the family genes (Mum wasn’t exactly what you’d call conventional) and I tried unsuccessfully to be ‘normal’ for many years. My children’s friends used to say ‘your Mum’s great but she’s a little eccentric, isn’t she?’ What I didn’t realise at the time was that it didn’t bother them in the slightest and they were much happier when I became who I truly am. A chip off the old block!