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A la recherche du bookshop perdu

Updated: Nov 30, 2018

In memory of my favourite bookshop...

I still feel a sense of loss whenever I walk past a particular shop-front in my town. All the frivolous consumer outlets that have occupied that building - puffed up and brassy, or understated and classy - it's all one. They are not it. They are not the one I loved. They are pale substitutes masquerading for a while, that is all. They may make profit. They may have an enviable brand. But they are not it. Not Thomas Thorp's.

This will probably mean nothing to anyone but me, but I shall go on gallantly nevertheless, in memoriam of Thomas Thorp's Bookshop, Guildford.

When I first moved out from the London suburbs to Guildford it was a moderately alien world to me - a country town with a cobbled high street surrounded by Surrey's rural beauty. And then there was Thomas Thorp's at the top of the High Street.

Walking through the arch under the legend "Constitution Hall" brought you to a corridor-cum-alley lined with bookshelves, which sloped gently upwards. The cash register was in a room to the left, with merchandise, children's' books and latest arrivals.

Walk on, past a room of oddments, possibly gardening books (who knows?) up the creaky, sloping, wide wooden stairs and step into the chamber of delights. Vaulted ceiling, dust motes floating timelessly in the sunlit airy heights. Floorboards creaked rudely, despite the hushed whispery atmosphere.

But oh, the musty, dusty, spicy scent of old books. Oh the aged burgundy spines. Oh the quality of the selection. Probably four hundred or more of my books were bought there, including the ones pictured. Hugos and Tolstoys, Ibsens and Stringbergs, Eliots and Dickenses, Flauberts and Stendahls, Austens and Brontes, Chekhovs and Turgenevs. I met them all here.

Many of the books were over 100 years old even back then. My George Eliots are signed in beautiful copperplate "Blanche Younghusband, 1881". My Dumas collection has beautiful flyleaf illustrations and tissue paper protection. But these books did not merely sit on my shelf, they were read, and read again.

Thomas Thorp's bookshop was established in 1883, and finally closed its doors in 2003. It was one of several related bookshops dotted around London and South East of England, though I was not concerned with its siblings. I regret now that I did not tell it how I felt about it while it was there. I'll admit it, I was complacent.

Bookshops like Thomas Thorps are the soul of a town. No amount of Waterstones or WH Smiths, no amount of charity shops can ever replace the wonder of a unique second hand bookshop. Like Neil Gaiman says in American Gods:

"What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”

The demise of Thomas Thorp's bookshop followed a familiar pattern. The introduction of gifts and merchandise. The slow takeover of new books and bestsellers from the musty old tomes. The mutterings about the internet. And then one day the closed doors.

My regrets at the passing of this wonderful shop stay with me, and probably influence my behaviour even now. Wherever I go, through towns and cities, I seek out the independent booksellers and always buy something, however small. We must keep independent and second hand booksellers alive. Go out and find your nearest bookshop and invest a little of your expendable income on an old book. It might make all the difference.

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