York Booksellers - The Hidden Pages of York
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The Hidden Pages of York

Yorkshire Evening Press 4th March, 2006

STEPHEN LEWIS visits bookshops off the beaten track,
with the help of a new website.

James Kendrew, York, c1820

Taikoo Books in Bootham isn't the kind of bookshop you pop into for a quiet browse on a lazy Saturday afternoon. It's not open on Saturday, for a start. In fact, it's not open in the strictest sense of the word any day of the week. To get in, you have to bang the heavy brass knocker on the door and hope owner David Chilton will hear.

Inside, it's more like walking into somebody's home than into a bookshop - albeit the home of someone obsessed with books. Books are everywhere, lining the walls of dimly-lit rooms, blocking narrow passageways, filling the air with their musty, thrilling aroma. The casual browser may be daunted by some of the titles, however. Field Notes, Afghanistan, 1915, says the dun-coloured cover of one small volume, intended for the British Army's general staff in the First World War. Russia In Central Asia In 1889 And The Anglo-Russian Question, says another. Soldiers Of The Prophet by CCR Murphy a third. Gazetteer Of The Persian Gulf, a whole series of weighty volumes.Not the lightest of bedside reading material, then. This is a shop for the serious specialist.

On the York Booksellers website, Taikoo describes its stock as: "Fine antiquarian and scholarly out of print stock on Africa and the Orient, especially Middle East and Central Asia." And that's exactly what you get. Want an obscure volume published in the late 1900s on diplomatic tensions along Afghanistan's north west frontier? David's your man. Looking for a rare report on US oil interests in Saudi Arabia in 1952 (with text in both English and Arabic)? Look no further. Hoping to find a first edition of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe? Turn around and beat a hasty retreat. You are in the wrong place.

Highly specialised Taikoo may be, but there are astonishing discoveries to be made here. David, who has been in the trade for nearly 30 years, knows exactly where to lay his hands on all of them. I'm interested in books about China, I tell him. He leads me along a cluttered passage to a large room crammed floor to ceiling with books, and begins to pull volumes from a low shelf. There are a couple of fascinating, cloth-bound tomes about early travels in south-western Yunnan province - complete with wonderful black-and-white photos. There is a book entitled China In Turmoil. And there is a weighty volume by a man called RF Johnston published in 1908 and entitled From Peking To Mandalay. "You'll recognise that name," David says. And suddenly I do. Johnston, I remember, was the English tutor to the last Chinese emperor, Pu Yi: the character played by Peter O'Toole in the film The Last Emperor. David leafs through the volume carefully, flipping over the pages - then draws out a folded slip of fine, high quality red paper with three Chinese characters inked on it in a beautiful script. It is one of Johnston's Chinese calling cards, he says - the characters spell out Johnston's name in Chinese. Standing there looking at it, I can imagine Johnston handing slips of paper just like this to court officials in Peking's famed Forbidden City - while beyond the walls the Chinese empire descended into republicanism and then anarchy. A truly unexpected link with one of modern history's most momentous periods.

Taikoo is just one of 20 or so antiquarian and second hand booksellers featured on the recently launched York Booksellers website. York has a wealth of such shops - as you'd expect from a city that, every year, hosts Britain's largest rare and antiquarian book sale, the York Book Fair.

Many of the best are well known. There is Spelman's in Micklegate, nominated by the critic and biographer Hermione Lee recently as one of the best in Britain. She described it as "a treasure trove of books on art and literature, of old prints, fine, rare hardbacks and serendipitous paperbacks, a haven of peace for browsers". She got it spot on.

There is Stone Trough Books in Fossgate, whose owner George Ramsden hit the headlines in January when he sold the 2,600 volume library of author Edith Wharton - which had been stored away in a North Yorkshire village for 20 years - for more than £1 million.

Then there is one of my favourites, the Minster Gate bookshop in Minster Gates. Housed over five floors of a tall, narrow Georgian building, this is how second-hand bookshops should look. The main room on the ground floor is lined wall to ceiling with books, everything from Arthurian legend to first editions of children's classics. There are some wonderful old maps, a "new books at bargains prices" basement, a room full of prints and Victorian botanical sketches, and rooms on literature, history and miscellaneous books. All this plus snatched glimpses out of the Georgian windows of York Minster looming above the narrow street outside.

Book lovers will have visited these shops many times. But the new website also brings together less well-known shops and booksellers.

James Hallgate of Lucius Books

Lucius Books is on Fossgate, one of the most popular streets in York for second-hand books. But from the outside the shop looks more like a posh art gallery than a bookstore. The books are all upstairs - and there are some beauties. A whole collection of 3/6d Hutchinson murder mysteries from the 20s and 30s, complete with colourful dust jackets; a proof copy of Gormenghast, inscribed by the author Mervyn Peake to York poet WH Auden; original Winnie The Pooh drawings by the illustrator EH Shephard - and many more.

There are also booksellers in York who are just that - booksellers rather than bookshops, many operating from their own homes.

They include the likes of Philip Morris Books of Queen Anne's Road which has a "small specialist stock" on the History of Ideas and is also run from a private home; and Nostalgia Publications in Nunnery Lane, which specialises in "glamour periodicals and magazines" and welcomes visitors from 11am to 5.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday.

Tony Fothergill of Ken Spelman books, who put together the York Booksellers website to help promote the book trade in York, admits even he was surprised at just how many booksellers there were. "I didn't know some of them were there!" he says.

The best thing of all about the new website, however, is that it takes the bibliophile on a journey beyond York. All the York booksellers are listed alphabetically. But there is also a section devoted to Yorkshire booksellers - arranged in `routes' travelling out of York heading north, west, east and south.

About 100 are listed - and the idea is that you cab print out the relevant page, then go on a journey of bookish exploration, heading towards the Yorkshire Dales, Beverley, Scarborough or wherever takes your fancy, and taking in some fantastic bookshops along the way.

Book browsing will never be the same again.

The York Booksellers website is at www.yorkbooksellers.co.uk

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