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.