Ian McMillan: Shelf life and soul

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan

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Whenever we went on holiday as a family to small towns in Scotland or Wales or the north of England, the first thing I would beg my parents to do, even before they’d unpacked the cases and had a nice cup of tea, was to go down the high street and find the nearest bookshop.

I’d natter and natter at them, sometimes turning on the tears, until, with exasperated gestures and heavy sighs, they’d agree to accompany me on my quest for the nearest palace of print. And the wonderful thing was that there always was a bookshop, even in the smallest town, sometimes down a side street, sometimes next to those gentlemen’s outfitters you always seemed to find in those places alongside shops that sold huge hats for women and emporiums that sold any kind of screw or nail or hinge you could ever want.

These little bookshops were magical places where the shelves, through some kind of optical illusion, seemed to go on forever, and there were always more books, more and more books reaching back into some kind of infinity of print.

I’d be allowed to go to the bookshop every day on my own with my pocket money in a purse that I called a wallet and every day I’d spend ages deciding which book to buy and then, in a moment of supreme triumph, I’d buy it. The till would ring and my heart would sing and I’d stroll back to the caravan site or the B&B with a spring in my step and the bookshop owner would say: “I’ll see you tomorrow!” Until the wrenching day, the last day of the holidays, when I knew that I wouldn’t be back for at least another year, and I couldn’t catch the shopkeeper’s eye. I didn’t read an entire book every day, of course: I used my holiday money and my birthday book tokens to stock up on reading material to last me through the darkening autumn and winter months.

As a young lad I was a completist; I collected Biggles, and Billy Bunter, and Just William, and Tarzan the Ape Man. I collected all CS Lewis’s Narnia stories, and as a slightly older reader I bought every Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard book I could lay my pudgy hands on. I loved the idea that the author was writing these books especially for me, and that somehow they knew I was waiting for the next one to appear in the beautiful little bookshop by the sea.

One of the saddest memories of my childhood is of going back to a little fishing town we’d visited a couple of years before, rushing to the bookshop and finding it closed, with a sign saying the owner was retiring. It was as though I’d got to the end of a book but found the last page missing, and tears prickled my eyes.

So, at Christmas time, value your local bookshop. Visit it, often. Buy books; spend time and money browsing those beautiful and infinite shelves, because if you don’t, they might fade away like frost in winter sunshine.

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