I was a total bookworm as a kid.
I was that girl who begged her mum to take her to the second-hand bookshop, who spent an hour poring over the titles, piling my chosen books up high then staggering to the front desk to pay for my treasures. The one who went on playdates and spent the entire time curled up in the corner reading, while the other kids played around me.
Nothing made me happier than to see my side table stacked with books I had yet to read. That delicious delight of spreading them across my bed, reading a few lines of each to help me decide which one to get stuck into first.
Growing up in New Zealand was an idyllic way to spend a childhood, but – stuck in the middle of the South Pacific at least three-and-a-half hours from Australia – it was also quite isolated from other cultures. There were no such things as budget airlines back then, so I travelled the world through the pages of my books, exploring and learning; getting lost in the magical make-believe and dreaming of all the real-life places I’d visit one day.
I still remember the wonder I felt reading The Enchanted Wood and The Magic Faraway Tree, and the thrill of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, and all their fabulously British adventures.
But I hadn’t seen a proper, old-fashioned second-hand bookstore in years; I assumed they’d all fallen prey to the digital age and closed down – another piece of literary history relegated to nostalgia.
Until the other week.
It was the end of the Easter break and the house was a dark, dusty construction zone: we had no kitchen, half a bathroom and I was washing the dishes in a plastic tub in the lounge. Reduced to living in just two rooms (which were piled high with stuff from all the other rooms) the girls were driving each other mad.
‘RIGHT!’ I announced. ‘We’re getting out of here!’
The renovations had majorly depleted our funds, so I decided to take them out for a drive and a slice of cake. We drove along winding roads, pointing out the wildlife and admiring the chocolate-box villages. Along a row of pretty cottages, I noticed one had a glass frontage, filled with books.
The sign outside read: ‘The Cottage Bookshop‘ and as I peered inside, my heart leapt a little. ‘Shall we have a look in here?’ I asked the girls, half expecting them to say no.
Despite them both having half of my bookworm genes neither had turned out to be voracious readers – I don’t know whether they took more after Daddy, or whether it’s just harder to get kids interested in books these days with all the digital distractions. But I never gave up encouraging them, and just recently they’ve both (Big Sis especially) shown a lot more interest in reading – thanks in huge part to the weird and wonderful tales of David Walliams.
‘Yes!’ They both cried in unison. ‘Can we Mummy, pleeeease?’
I creaked open the door, and there it was – that delightfully dusty smell I remembered from childhood. All around me were bookshelves, crammed from floor to rafters with every title imaginable – a rainbow of everything from modern paperbacks to faded hardbacks with curled, yellowing pages – all enticing and encouraging children to read.
An Aladdin’s Cave of literature.
Over the years the old cottage had been taken over: the rooms choked by books until they’d been reduced to skinny pathways winding between the piles and towering stacks.
I spent SO many hours in second-hand bookstores like this when I was a kid, but this was another level again – it looked like something you’d find on Diagon Alley in a Harry Potter film. The girls stared, wide-eyed. ‘Whoooa…’ they breathed, darting off to explore the book-lined lanes.
I wasn’t sure if they’d ‘get’ the whole experience, so was thrilled when they were just as enchanted by this readers’ paradise as I’d been at their age. They weren’t just exploring or playing hide and seek either, they were genuinely enraptured by the endless rows of books stacked before them.
I gave them £5 each, and we must have easily spent an hour in there pulling books out, poring over the covers and reading all the blurbs.
After much deliberation (big piles reduced to shortlists, then painfully whittled down to just three titles each) they proudly took their books to the counter.
Chatting to the woman who worked in the shop, we were sad to hear that after 57 years in the village, the elderly owner had decided to sell the property – the workload was just too much for him now, and custom had dropped since people started reading more ebooks.
She told us that people came from all over the world to visit The Cottage, which contains over 65,000 books. The building had taken many forms over the years; once the home of the district nurse, it went on to become a fish and chip shop, a branch of Barclays bank and a cobbler before becoming a second-hand bookshop.
Not only has it formed the backdrop for several episodes of Midsomer Murders, it’s even thought to be the inspiration for the Unseen University Library in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.
Houses are quickly snapped up in this pretty village, so it’s unlikely the new owner will take on the second-hand bookshop as is. Sadly, this amazing piece of literary history will probably be gone in a couple of months.
That night, the girls even took themselves to bed early so they could get stuck into their new books. Before lights off they proudly showed me how many pages they’d read, each excitedly telling me what had happened so far. And it literally made my heart swell.
I’ve promised the girls we’ll go back before it closes and stock up on Enid Blyton – the same books that brought me so much joy when I was their age.
What are your favourite books from childhood?