An Interview with Bookseller Julius Hyde
The Old High Street is aptly named. It’s one of the oldest streets in Falmouth, branched with alleys and courtyards; an arch spans the street at the top of the hill, crested by a clock-tower. Here, away from the big businesses of Market Street, you can find independent cafés, boutiques and antique shops. And Greenbank Books.
Displayed in the window is a varied selection of publications: Peter Ackroyd’s London; The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett; The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, illustrated by Mervyn Peake; specialist books on subjects such as maritime, motoring, military and art; and countless titles on Cornish history. Inside, the light is warm and books line all three walls; two tables occupy the carpeted floor space, one spines-up for browsing and one covers-up for display. A lifetime’s worth of reading.
Today there’s jazz playing: Charlie Parker. The other times I’ve come here it’s been classical music. Either way it’s always instrumental: there’s no room for lyrics, this small shop is already full of words.
Julius Hyde greets me, shakes my hand, pulls up two chairs on the shop floor. He comes across as a gentle man, unassuming and knowledgeable. He wears spectacles and a knitted cardigan and his hair and beard are grey.
I came here with a long list of books early in the summer and he knew the titles he had in stock and exactly where each one was, even if it was buried under a pile of books in the back.
He’s been running the shop for almost two years now, tending customers of all sorts, from young to very old. Many of them are looking for specialist books, of which the shop has an excellent stock, whereas some just come in to browse the paperbacks. Before becoming a bookseller he was a collector.
‘I’d been collecting books for thirty years,’ he tells me. He speaks slowly, deliberately – not hesitant, just unhurried. ‘I could put the first stock of books in the shop from my own collection of stuff.’
He admits that parting with his collection was difficult, but as a bookseller he has so many texts coming through that there’s no space for him to miss anything.
‘Do you ever find anything interesting in your books, such as inscriptions, photographs or notes?’
‘Not as many as I’d like.’ He smiles. He says he’s found some interesting items such as photographs, postcards and pressed flowers. ‘Never any money,’ he laughs. ‘And I’ve never found any photographs that shouldn’t be in there either.’
Once he sold a travel book and a train ticket to Pitlochry fell out from between the pages as the customer opened the book. She asked to keep the ticket: she said the man she was buying it for would love that the ticket was in there. It gives the book a history, a story of its own, set in the wild beauty of the Scottish Highlands, the protagonist an unknowable traveller reading this very book.
Inscriptions, though, from a bookseller’s perspective, aren’t so romantic.
‘Generally, inscriptions are a bit of a nuisance. The fact that people write, in biro, very banal things, or they think it’s fine to write all over the book, is a bit of a mystery to me. It’s almost a kind of defacing.’
I agree with him, I tell him I can’t bring myself to annotate, at least not in pen. It’s as if the book doesn’t belong to me, it doesn’t belong to anyone, and that to add my own words would be a futile attempt to possess something that isn’t mine. It’s the books that possess us, if only momentarily. That said, for me a banal inscription wouldn’t be a deal-breaker, and an interesting inscription might just be a deal-clincher.
I look down at the notebook in my lap, to the questions scribbled there. I’m getting caught up in the conversation. ‘So let’s talk about literature,’ I say, looking up. ‘What’s the first book that you remember, not necessarily reading, but loving, really affecting you?’
‘Probably Stig of the Dump,’ he answers. ‘And interestingly, the cover art from that is by Edward Ardizzone who’s now – forty, fifty years later – one of my favourite illustrators.’ (Later I look up some illustrations by Edward Ardizzone. They are simple and scratchy: crosshatchings and lines built up to form a full image. Visually they remind me of the lines of type on a page, or the metal etchings that sometimes accompany old books.) ‘Well after that I should think probably the Narnia stories, The Silver Chair was one I really liked as a kid.’
‘I think when I was a kid my favourites were Diana Wynne Jones,’ I say, trying to remember the names of the books but I can only recall the colourful cover art, parallel worlds and the enchanters that had nine lives (“The reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen) ‘and then the His Dark Materials trilogy – I loved that when I was a kid.[i] And at the moment,’ I ask, ‘your favourite book, or writer?’
‘Probably Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, which is again sort of fantasy. And other than that I suppose Zola. It’s quite a contrast.’
I make a mental note of Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan – add it to the to read list I carry around in my head.
‘So why do you think books are important, if they are important?’
I’ve noticed that Julius watches me as I ask the questions and looks away across the shop to answer. He looks away now, scratching his beard, his eyes flickering beneath his specs as he rummages around in his brain.
He starts slowly, searchingly: ‘I think they’re more important now because they’re one of the few pleasures you’ve got in the modern world where you’re actually creating. A book gives you the narrative and the rest of it you create yourself in your mind.
‘And in a world that’s increasingly bombarding everyone with images, to focus down on just the words and create your own images from that is… is a real kind of release.’
This calls to mind something Margaret Atwood wrote, comparing the printed text of the book to a musical score, ‘which is not music itself, but becomes music when played by musicians’.[ii]
‘That’s right,’ says Julius. ‘And I think, in a way, that’s becoming a rarer thing. Everybody’s just being bombarded with so much information and the idea that it’s got to hit you immediately’ – he claps his hands together – ‘and a book is the opposite of that. And I think we need that, too, I think people actually need that sort of difference.’
This is the difference between visiting a bookshop and buying a book online. It’s a slow experience as opposed to the immediacy of the internet, and it’s an activity that you participate in, running your fingers over the spines, searching, surrounded by stories. They may not have what you were looking for, but there are so many possibilities. You may stumble across your new favourite book.
‘Some say that people tend to read less these days and that written fiction is going to vanish, do you think that’s going to happen?’
‘No. No, I don’t. People use lots of different media but that’s always been the case. I think there’s always going to be innovation but I don’t think that’s going to kill it.
‘I hope there’ll be more of an appreciation of the book as a beautiful object. Maybe people will become more and more interested in specialist bindings and illustrations and that kind of thing.’
When I run out of questions and thank Julius for the interview, he hesitates, stays seated.
‘I just thought of another book that I really enjoyed, called Carter Beats the Devil…’ He gives me a brief synopsis and I add it to the list in my head.
‘Right, OK, I’ll show you some books,’ Julius says, rising from his chair. He walks over to the display table that dominates the the middle of the small shop. ‘Although having said about special bindings, there is something to be said for just ordinary…’ he hauls a polystyrene box of books out from under the table, ‘just an ordinary, modern binding.’
The first one he shows me is The Sweet Shop Owner by Graham Swift. On the cover, a boy looks through a sweet shop window at the jars of brightly coloured confectionary. It reminds me of Bill’s Candy Shop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, decades before Candy Crush Saga could even be conceived. The second is Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories of a City, an old photograph of the Süleymaniye Mosque in a sepia heat-haze.
Julius puts these ones away and has a rummage around in the back room for some older publications. He hands me Lays of Ancient Rome with its burnt-orange cloth cover and ridged spine decorated with gold tooling; it’s hefty for its size. Next is The Old Sailor’s Jolly Boat, published in 1844, and then a copy of Robinson Crusoe that looks equally ancient to my young eyes; inside are intricate etchings of scenes in the story. The first two of these have marbled endpapers: pretty funky for the nineteenth century.
After he finishes showing me these beautiful old books, we shake hands and I thank him for his time. What I intended to be a fifteen-minute interview turned into an enthusiastic, forty-minute conversation between a literature student and a bookseller. In fact, we continue chatting for another half an hour. That’s one thing the internet lacks – human interaction – and, as is often the case with second-hand shops, I came away with something that I didn’t expect to find.
[i] George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons, (New York: Bantam Books, 2012) p. 495
[ii] Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) p. 44.
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