Nothing Is Perfect

Quentin had been working with me for two years and took to the business with amazing rapidity . I should have known that, because he and I have much in common. He did as little as he could get away with at school, but, at the same time, he learned to play more than one instrument, created a band of his own in no time and later on he gave gigs, that is one-night-stands, for several years. We had bought a van for picking up books and Quentin borrowed it when he needed it for a gig. Quentin and Lynne married when they were 19 and 18 years old and they were the heart of the band. Lynne was the singer. They have been together ever since and they have one son. I have never done anything I didn’t want to do if I could help it and Quentin is the same. By the same token when I really want to do something I learn very fast just like Quentin.

Bob was a different sort of person altogether. However we both loved our children and wanted to do the best for them. But his ideas and mine were usually very different. Fundamentally, if something was very important to me, and Bob didn’t agree, I would put my foot down and get my own way. The well-being of my children comes before everything else including my husband.

My shop was my fourth baby. I had brought it into the world through my own efforts and risks. I was not going to let anyone stop it from being successful. Bob was at first delighted to see how well things were going. Quentin and I often went out to fairs or to buy books while Bob looked after the shop. He did very useful things that I did not want to do. He arranged the books in order so that they could be found easily, he did the book-keeping, something I loathed and he generally kept the shop in better order than I would have done and that made me happy. But instead of him leaving the rest to me, he interfered in a most thoughtless and unthinking manner which put the success of the shop in jeopardy.

One day Quentin and I came back one afternoon after two days away. As we walked into the shop I saw a pile of undesirable books stacked by the side of the counter. We looked at each other and groaned. Bob was just coming upstairs and said “What do you think of these books?” While I was trying to think of a suitable reply Quentin said “Why don’t you leave the buying to Mum. She knows what she is doing.” Quentin was spot on. Bob was not one to fly into a temper, he collapsed into a state of disappointment. What could anyone do with that? It was like taking candy from a baby as the proverb goes. I felt so sorry for him and I despised him so much all in one. I had no alternative but to speak sharply to him. It was the only thing that worked. He didn’t want to be in my bad books. I don’t like to use such tactics but the well-being of the family had to come first.

At another time I was offered an excellent library. I needed £7,000 to buy it. We did not have anything like that much in the bank. However, I had a bank manager who was very impressed at how well the business was going. I was pretty sure he would lend me the money. Bob said “No”. I took no notice and borrowed it. It was the best purchase I ever made. Some six months later when we were rather short of books again Bob said to me “Wouldn’t it be good if you could find another lot like those you bought before.” Once again I was dumbstruck. One of my favourite proverbs has always been “You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

Shortly after, I was away on a book trip and into the shop came the Master of Trinity, a delightful man who nearly became prime minister. He asked if Mrs Pain would come to look at some books he wanted to sell. Quentin was there and he went. He made an offer that was accepted and when I got back he showed me the books with pride. “You got it just right!” I said. The Master came in the next day to tell me what a delight it was to make a deal with my son. Quentin knows how to talk to anybody in any situation. He has that very useful quality of being sensitive to other people and their responses.

Despite these difficulties by the end of our first year in the shop we had saved enough money to put down a deposit on a house. I really wanted to stay in our house in Storeys Way, because it was on the market. But it was too much for us at that point. Instead we moved into Waterbeach, a pleasant village five miles away and there we stayed for thirty four years. Bob died there four years ago.



All Good Fun

Second-hand booksellers poured into the shop to see who was this newcomer daring enough to take on a new business in the centre of one of the best-known university cities in the world. Nothing ventured, nothing gained has always been a favourite proverb of mine. I soon knew all the active booksellers of old books in the UK. Mind you, there weren’t many, but they were all great fun: each a true individual working in their own way and not from anyone else’s (a rare thing) which meant they were never, ever boring.

Several of them lived in outposts where it wasn’t easy to sell secondhand books, especially those who lived in sparsely inhabited but very beautiful countrysides, like the South West of England. Shortly after we went to Cambridge, a new organisation was set up, The PBFA: The Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association. Once a month at weekends in the same hotel in London, those of us who wished to sell their wares there packed up our cars with a selection of our best books with foldable bookshelves flattened out on the floors of our estate cars. Our group rented a large room on the ground floor of the hotel where we laid everything out, providing a temporary bookshop for two days. It was hard work, but the pleasure we got made them well worth while both socially and financially.

It struck me then that once a group of people get together they tend to break down into smaller groups. Those of us who came from the greatest distance stayed in the same hotel so we naturally met each other for breakfast. On Saturday nights, a small number of us, who came from the far West and knew each other very well, spent a convivial dinner together with a plentiful supply of wine. For some reason they always invited me and no other woman. Why? I don’t like alcohol but I managed to get down a glass or two by sipping in small amounts. I seem on the whole to get along better with men than women, as I’ve mentioned before. I was treated like one of the boys in that I was liked for my way of taking bookselling seriously.

My friend, Derek Gibbons, did not have a car and he wanted to come too, so I agreed to take him to the fairs. He only brought a small number of choice books with him. It was all very light hearted. He never took anything seriously. He had a lively imagination and many stories to tell. We often thought that they had been embellished to make them more interesting. He was generally liked because he had a great sense of humour and was a very knowledgeable bookseller.

For the first time in my life I belonged to a group in which I felt absolutely at home. We not only sold books to the public but we also bought and sold with each other. Most of us had a favourite interest and we would often look out for specialities so that we could offer them to friends before we put them up for sale. I enjoyed these little jaunts away from the shop.

But all this was a long time ago, in the 1970s. That time was at the height of a strong interest in books. I met a retired bookseller who worked in Deighton Bell, the bookshop opposite my own. He began to work there in the 1950s. He told me that they were never short of the right kind of books. They were offered so many that they had to turn some away because they hadn’t enough space. Soon after we opened our shop, more people began to work as second-hand booksellers at a time when the rents of shops were increasing too fast and it was ever more hard to find the right kind of books that we wanted. The auction sales of big old country houses which began after the World War 2, were beginning to dwindle. The situation has changed greatly since then. The PBFA still exists but many shops have had to close and the number of booksellers decreased.

We not only went to London once a month. New book fairs at week-ends sprang up in major cities in the UK. Quentin and I went to them together. He always drove me and carried the books and bookshelves to and fro. This made things much easier for me. We always worked very well together and I got to know cities I would not have seen otherwise. It was all very good fun as long as it lasted.



The Value Of Books

Once the shop was open we were very busy most of the time. What a joy! There is nothing more dispiriting for the owner of a shop to spend hours on end when no-one comes in. I did not want to own a shop for that. It suddenly struck me why I ever thought of wanting to run a shop in the first place. My need to meet other people of my own turn of mind was more than satisfied in my Cambridge bookshop. I got to know academics, MPs, specialists like David Attenborough, businessmen, undergraduates and collectors looking for books they wanted. One of my qualms about taking the shop was the fear that I must lack the experience of the booksellers who had been established there for years. I came into the business from a different angle. Reading having been my best love all my life, I found that I knew very much more than the other booksellers whose principal advantage was to know the prices of books, but not necessarily their quality.

For instance, one of the reasons why I became so popular was because I had an academic knowledge of such subjects as English Literature, philosophy, and psychotherapy. People liked me and my shop because I, Bob and my son enjoyed books for their own sake and were only too happy not only to sell books but to spend time talking about them.

Many booksellers liked our shop too. I must have got to know most of them in Great Britain. Several times I was asked “How on earth did you manage to get a shop in such a splendid place as Trinity Street?” What they really meant was why did the powers that be lease the shop to such a newcomer.

“Easy” I said “I just asked.”

My friend Derek Gibbons was green with envy, in the nicest possible way. He came every Saturday to work with us. I couldn’t keep him away. He met lots of well-known visitors to Cambridge which tickled him no end. His customers loved him because of his cheeky ways and witty conversation. One of his best clients had a very apposite nickname for him: “The Trappist” because he never stopped talking. When the shop in Green Street was finally vacant, he dared to take a lease there on the ground floor. He was only a short way from us. We met every day and gossiped over a cup of coffee or occasionally, lunch. He had a small number of specialist items, especially illustrated and children’s books, and he did much better than the first shop he took which was a long way down Mill Road, well away from the colleges. Only people who knew him knew he was there.

One wet Saturday in autumn I looked out of the window and saw there was one of our prime ministers whom I most disliked, Edward Heath. There were two henchmen, dressed in black, on both sides of him. “Oh please don’t come into my shop” I said to myself. But they did. They made their way through the throng of customers and came straight to me, behind the counter. Several heads had turned and the usual lively talk quietened down a bit.

“What can I do for you Mr Heath?” A very inept statement on my part because he was the last person I wanted to do anything for.

“Can you tell me what I would have to pay for a Speed map of Kent?” I thought for a moment. “If you want a first edition it would probably cost you seven hundred pounds. “ He turned to one of his bodyguards and said “I’ve been robbed.”

“Ah Mr. Heath” I said “So all you want is a free valuation!” He turned bright red, as well he might and he couldn’t get out of my shop quickly enough. Guffaws burst out everywhere. There were cries of “Good on you Jean! Well said.” I was glad I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like him. One of my favourite dons was there. Before he left he came up to congratulate me. Then he said “An old aunt of mine has recently died. Would you like to come and have a look at her library? She had some lovely books.” I couldn’t wish for better. I made him a good offer and he didn’t ask anyone else.

A year or so later when books of the right, saleable kind were getting scarcer Bob sighed and said “Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could find as good a collection of books as those you got through insulting Mr. Heath.”



Getting Ready

Life throws up some extraordinary coincidences sometimes. Years after we opened the shop, my daughter married the son of the man who ran the shop before me. I then discovered that both shops that were empty had been branches of Bowes & Bowes. One (ours) had been a Science bookshop and the other, a Modern Languages bookshop. Both were closed down because they were losing money. Had we known this at the time we might well have not taken the shop. How was it then that our shop flourished? The answer was simple. We sold not new books as the others had done but old and antiquarian books that were hard to find anywhere else. We had an added piece of luck. When the shop was emptied, all the fitted shelves were left in. They stood there waiting to be filled. That saved us a lot of money and work.

These were the first two pieces of luck. There were three more.

We desperately needed to find a house to live in as soon as possible so that we had somewhere to go home to at night whilst we were getting the shop ready. We were very lucky to find a house in the pleasant area of Storeys Way, so close that we could walk to and fro to the shop. The owner of the house had been cared for by a housekeeper for a long time before he died. He had left it to his son with the proviso that she be allowed to live there until she found somewhere else to go. The housekeeper’s work was to look after the new tenants. That was us.

She was a gem. She did everything around the house, shopping, cleaning, cooking and washing. She was near retirement age but was very energetic and a nice person. That was exactly what I needed for our first year in business. We signed for a one year stay in the hope that we would have earned enough to put down a deposit for a permanent home. We had to get rid of quite a lot of our furniture but we kept the best and stored it in the garage.

Another piece of luck was my bookseller friend Derek Gibbons, who couldn’t keep away from the shop. Once all the books had been collected from the garages in which they had been stored and the best of the Bedford shop, we had piles of books all over the floor. Quentin and I could not price them all alone.

Derek came in every day and he worked like a Trojan. He was astounded that I should have taken on a shop in such a prominent position. He was the last one to take any risks but he was a first-class bookseller with a lot of knowledge. It was a mammoth task, not only to price the books but to decide where the books had to go, upstairs and down. I also had a small collection of old maps and prints. They had to be framed, priced and hung on the walls. We also had the front of the shop painted and my name on its sign over the window. Passers-by were very interested in what we were doing and continually asked when we were opening.

Finally Bob did all the work of emptying the contents of both our house and our shop in Bedford. Robin was staying in Bedford where his work was. He had a small bed-sit for weekdays and spent the week-ends with us in a room of his own. He didn’t want to be left in Bedford but his job was there. This arrangement helped him to ease gradually from his desire to stay with us all the time. Quentin’s wife-to-be remained in Bedford. He stayed with us during the week and went back to her at the week-ends.

By the time we were finished we were exhausted but triumphant.

The day itself was incredible. It justified my thoughts that if we were to do well we would have to be in the very best situation. When we opened there was a queue that reached from our door along the length of Trinity Street to the Round Church. Both upstairs and downstairs were packed. We were serving all day long and had sold so many books that we were very glad we had more stashed away to replace them. All four of us, myself, Quentin, Bob and Derek were busy all day and every minute.

Our kind housekeeper, at home with Kate, had a tasty dinner ready for us. What happened that day was even greater than what we had hoped for. It wasn’t long before Quentin and I had to go out in the car to find as many books as we could, in addition to those that were offered to us by our customers.



The Greatest Surprise Of My Life

Quentin and I spent a lot of time driving all over the place to get together as interesting a collection of books as we could find. We took them straight to two rented garages in Cambridge for the time being. One day I heard that a bookseller in Scotland had an interesting collection of books he wanted to sell. Quentin and I drove up to Perthshire. I got more than I bargained for there! The books were more literary than saleable. Rare they certainly were, but not the sort of rare that was sought after. The man who had gradually bought them over a number of years was the most erudite being I had ever met in the area of English literature. He was extraordinary.

I only had to glance over the books to see immediately that they were not what I wanted. I thought we had wasted our time. We had booked in at a local hotel for two nights. If I had ever met anyone I could truly call eccentric it could only have been Alasdair, living on his own in a rented run-down country house surrounded by mountainous views in every direction. Very romantic! Oh Yes!

Before we went off to our hotel he never stopped talking and unlike most people who talk too much, everything was fascinating to me despite my own considerable knowledge because I learned far more about English literature than I could have imagined. He was a tall thin man whose whole body gesticulated as he spoke. There was wit in every sentence, the like of which I had never heard before.

Quentin wanted to to go off in the car to explore the mountains the next day, so I spent the day talking with Alasdair about all kinds of writers and I learned about his extraordinary life. Of all the people I met who shared my interests, and there were very few of them, he was the best. He never spoke in cliches, he never repeated himself and everything he said was new to me. I felt as though I had been struggling through a desert in most of my intellectual life and I had suddenly come across a bottomless oasis and drank every drop of water.

I hadn’t realised it but I had fallen deeply in love for the first time in my life. So had he.

I had forgotten all about the purpose of my trip. As Quentin and I drove away from his house I felt pangs of despair. Whatever had happened to me? This is the kind of snare that makes us feel as though we are walking on air and nothing else matters. When I was a therapist I came across many people who thought that if only they could find the perfect partner, all their problems of loneliness and loss would disappear for ever.

It was always a delusion. Everything we need is inside ourselves. Whatever happens when we fall in love teaches us more about ourselves. Something in us has been brought to the surface that has been recognised in someone else. Alasdair recognised in me my powers of a writer that I had never found out. In that short time with him I realised that my potential was considerable and not yet understood.

We spent only two or three short days together that I shall never forget. One day he took me to lunch in Scotland with his old friend, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. It was a hysterically funny conversation in which I learned that famous people are also just like everyone else. After that I put no-one else on a pedestal. Alasdair was far away from his salad days and although for a very short time we considered that perhaps we might live together for the rest of our lives, we soon realised that was impossible. Why, I asked myself, should this happen so suddenly out of the blue; just as I was about to launch a new start in Cambridge? A good question to which I only have a partial answer. That time in my life was full of excitement and anticipation that made me open to exceptional feelings and events. We couldn’t live at such a high point without burning ourselves out. Getting back to being ordinary again is a great relief.



Big Changes

I got to know many booksellers in a very short time. I liked all of them and they liked me. We were all outsiders and didn’t fit into groups. Every one was an individual and had his own ideas and all of them loved books. They were all men. But they were a special kind of men. Few of them had been to university but they were all multi-talented and independent and only did work they wanted to do. Like me they had tried many types of work to find out what suited them best. None of them had ever worked in big companies. Probably because they liked to be their own masters. Very few women are like this which is why very few women become booksellers. I had never fitted in with groups of women. I didn’t get what I wanted from them, the chance to have really interesting conversations. If I believed in previous lives I know I would have been a man. C.G. Jung’s thesis of the animus and anima, that all men have a feminine side and all women have a masculine one is certainly true. I intend, at some time soon to write a book called Women and Men’s Lib. The organisation that started in the ’60s went very wrong because it ignored the fact that men and women need each other. I, who had never made long-term friends, made at least nine. Having reached my great age of 82, six of them are now dead. I am still in touch with the other three. I had always been attracted by King Arthur and his round table of the knights. For the first time in my life I felt I had joined the circle.

I was delighted when Quentin joined me in the business. Any difficulties between us melted like ice in sun once we started to work together. He, who had not read books became very interested in them. He learned fast and we never got in each other’s way. Although he was only seventeen he was an excellent driver which relieved me of doing all the long journeys. Bob was also relieved that at last I was making some money. He was eager to give in his notice at school as soon as possible. But I knew it was unlikely that we would earn enough money for the family for some time. I put my thinking cap on.

Where would be the best place in the country for finding customers for old books? At once it came to me: Oxford and Cambridge. But that would not be good enough. If we took a shop in either city it had to be in the very heart of the universities. Nothing less would do. How could this be achieved? This was my plan. We already had a mortgage on our house in Bedford. The only way we could get together a reasonable collection of good, saleable books would be to sell it. Where then would we live? We would have to take a rented house. Bob agreed.

I had always wanted to live in Cambridge from the first time I saw it. I was sitting on a wall outside St John’s College with my two sons looking at one of our oldest churches: The Round Church, on a beautiful summer’s day. I said to myself “This is for me”.

Cambridge was my choice. But when I first looked for an empty site there was nothing available. Plan B was to see what we could find in Oxford. We did find something: a shop for sale with living space above, but it was just a little too far from the centre. I was tempted, because it was a very reasonable price which we could just about manage.

We discussed it and agreed that we should put in an offer. Right at the very last minute I said to Bob “This just will not do. We must just find something in the centre or not at all”. He agreed. The next time I went back to Cambridge I found that in Green Street, off Trinity Street, where I really wanted to be, there was a shop that repaired old books. It had been there for a long time. Rents were beginning to rise and the owner was trying to raise some money by letting his ground-floor windowed shop out for four weeks at a time to suitable tenantsl, so that they could try out whether they would earn enough money to take on a longer lease.

There was someone already in there, coming to the end of his four weeks. I went in to talk to the owner and asked him if he would give us the next four weeks to see what we could do. He agreed. I told Bob and he thought it was a very good idea. We could put our best books in the window and see what sort of a response we would get. We both thought it was an excellent way to put our toes in the water.

That was what we did. Bob, who had recently resigned from his school, looked after our shop with Quentin’s help. I drove over to Cambridge and back six days a week. It was a great success. Many customers said they would love to see another bookshop in Trinity Street. As it happened two very suitable sites became empty very quickly. Such a thing rarely happened. I told Bob and he agreed that we should get in touch with Trinity College, who was the landlord. They invited me to go for an interview. They were impressed. The fact that I had an honours degree in a literary subject was very much in my favour. When I told them I had started a shop by myself in Bedford and made a go of it I impressed them even more. I said my husband would be working as my partner. They insisted that since it was I who had established the whole thing they wanted my name over the window. Bob was not very pleased about that but he agreed and we signed the contract. I was never more scared in my life. Everything was balanced on the shop being very successful. If it failed we should have no home. The boys were grown up but Kate was still only ten. The next few months were the most exciting and successful times in my entire life.



Trying Times

What a time, the 1960’s! There were huge social changes. It made everything difficult for that most vulnerable period in life, the teen-age years. It is natural for healthy and strong-minded children to begin to challenge their parents way-of-life. Having come from an unconventional family I had done something very unusual: I brought myself up as an individual. I had my own opinions about what is right and what is wrong. I rejected all forms of orthodox religions because I knew they were all man-made. I didn’t want advice. I knew no-one whom I could turn to. I wanted my children to follow the same path and learn to think for themselves rather than copy what most of all the other young people do.

I had seen enough about the hysterical reactions to Hitler’s wild speeches to know how dangerous it can be to get caught up in one person’s ideas. The Beatles were the new gods. I must say I liked most of their music for its originality and some of their lyrics which contained elements of wisdom. When most young people begin to rebel against their parents they do not begin to start thinking for themselves. All they do is copy their friends. This is one of the reasons why I dislike joining sects of all kinds.

Apart from all this it is important that we learn how to make mistakes in order to learn better ways to help ourselves.

Quentin was my biggest rebel. He didn’t do his homework, nor practice for his music lessons. He had one or two mild skermishes with the police. He wanted to get out of school and away from home as fast as possible. One day I had to go to the police station to fetch him home when he was being kept there illegally. At the ages of fourteen and fifteen he insisted on going on holiday with a mate by cadging lifts from drivers. There was no way we could stop him. It reminded me of the time when he plunged into a swimming pool from the highest board when he was barely two years old and swam to the side although he had never had any lessons.

During what was a very bad time for me was because I could not get close enough to him. He is one of the kindest of people and the last person to harm anyone. I knew that and it made it worse.

I couldn’t talk to Bob about it. All he could say was “You haven’t told any of the neighbours about this, have you?” The one person who helped me was my friend Jerry Planus. He listened to me, said very little, but heard every word. Afterwards, he went away saying “I’m glad I never had no bloody kids!”

I had been studying psychology for some time and I was convinced that this behaviour had something to do with unconscious anger towards me for leaving him in Venezuela when he was still so young. The crisis came when he was living away from home in Bedford with his soon-to-be wife and he fixed a pretend suicide . She rang us up in Cambridge one night and Bob and I sped as fast as we could to the hospital. He insisted in a slightly drunken state that he had not taken an overdose: that I alone knew that this was true. He was right. I believed him. I knew why he pretended he had done it. It was a piece of revenge directed at me for leaving him when he was so small to remind me of my own suffering over my brother’s suicide. He didn’t believe this because he had no conscious feeling that it was true. I am sure it was, because I know from my own experience just how vengeful I can be.

From that time onwards our relationship improved and we grew close to each other again which gave great joy to both of us. When Quentin was seventeen and had started and rejected several boring jobs I suggested that he work for me. His best friend had a car and was in the same position as himself. I told them what kind of books I was looking for and sent them off to search secondhand bookshops and charity shops. It wasn’t long before Quentin was working with me in my shop every day. He picked up things very quickly when he really wanted to learn, as he did. It isn’t easy for two members of a family to work well together in a family business. We made a perfect pair. When I opened my shop in Cambridge he was enormously supportive. He married his girlfriend when they were very young, 18 and 19 and they are still together with one greatly loved son. He stayed with me for five years and then he started his own business. He worked hard and did very well.