Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2007

 

The Greatest Bookshop of them all

James Bacon

I am not sure when exactly bookshops became a place of refuge and recreation for me.

When I first started reading comics, I was very young, maybe 4, and Dad would just turn up with the requisite reads, all 'boys' comics, mostly military and some science fiction. He would pop into Turners newsagent and get my Battle every week, and at holidays and Christmas he would turn up with the seasonal specials.

These comics are well sought after today and are much more adult in content than any American contemporary. Charley's War for instance is currently being reprinted, in hard bound format, and is already on volume III and is recognised for its true anti-war sentiment but also for the harsh way the likes of the Somme are so realistically portrayed.

My Nana (maternal Grandmother) lives in Dalkey, which is an affluent little town. Although it could be described as being in the suburbs of Dublin has managed to feel more like a town, any post colonial town actually, than the sprawl that is Dublin.

In Dalkey is the Book Exchange. I am unsure when it first opened, but I remember being brought in and shown the children's section and focusing on the comic annuals. This was when it was a very small shop, and it was nearly all second hand stock.

I would waste all my pocket money and a hell of a lot of time, browsing and buying a variety of books. The military section was near children's and as I got older I expanded my areas of interest. I spent many summers with my Nana, and weekends too and it would be a regular relief to dispatch us, that's the various grandchildren that would be in the house at Hyde Rd., to the bookshop.

The shop moved, developed a New and used section, but by this stage I was way too familiar with the best bookshops in Dublin's city and the exchange waned in comparison. In saying that, any time I am in Dalkey I always call in, just in case you never know what Gem they might have.

When I was 14 or15 I was brought round to Phantasia by Foggey, a school mate, he liked 2000 AD, a science fiction anthology weekly comic which is the home of Judge Dredd among many other characters, and where great writers from Alan Moore to Neil Gaiman cut their comic teeth. At this stage I was still getting the comic from the local newsagent, via my Dad, who maintained the subscription. At what stage I went from Military to Science Fictional themes I am not sure. I know Battle finished in January 1988, but I also know that I had been various science fiction stories much earlier, and Eagle which returned in 1982, but I know for sure I was reading 2000 AD comics and annuals in 1985. In saying that, its just the military wasn't as important, but still desirable, and even today, I flit from one genre to the other.

So I was unaware of the whole concept of the 'Comic Shop' but I must have come to one of the best environments one could imagine. The curator, for he was no employee, of the shop on a Tuesday and Thursday was Mick O'Connor. Mick soon befriended me, and eventually got me involved with the Irish Science Fiction Association, and was a part of Irish Fandom himself. This comic shop also sold SF books, and anything else, depending on what sort of frequency the owner, Terry was on. The shop was in Temple bar, when the area was full of old warehouses, and it was about 8 feet by 20 feet. It was part of a bigger building, and seemed at one stage to have been an alternative entrance way, no longer used.

Mick was a great shop worker, knowledgeable in comics, a reader himself, a widely read in many of the great SF works, he was informative, helpful and best of al rearranged the 2000 AD's into number order, because he listened to his customers.

From this shop, it was short walk to The Alchemists head, and this was the first comic shop in Dublin, which opened sometime in either the late seventies or early eighties. The shop imported new comics, had a great selection of Books, both esoteric and science fiction and was modern enough. Through Mick I met Jonathon, and when I wasn't standing, or as time went by sitting in Phantasia, with Mick on Tuesday and Thursday or Gerry on Saturday on a Sunday I would meet Jonathon, who covered the shop. He was a decent fello, and we would read and chat about comics.

I met many people through going to the ISFA inclusing Padraig O'Mealoid, Rory Lennon and James Mason. Padraig managed Dandelion books, and Rory and James were part timers there. Dandelion prided itself on having the largest selection of SF in the country. There was quite a length of books, about 7 foot in height, I would say the shelves ran about seven three foot drops, so that's over 200 feet of book spines, which was pretty good.

Phantasia closed, and I gravitated to Dandelion and spent more time there, and worked occasionally as the situation would have it, normally when I would call in after school, when Padraig would be sick, the owner Steven would be itching to lodge money or what not and off he would go, leaving me in charge and with the promise of books upon his return.

I wasted a huge amount of my youth in these types of places, drinking coffee, discussing books and comics, learning, getting recommendations. I was a comic shop rat, and I loved it.

When I was 23, I opened my own bookshop with Padraig. We then had a huge amount of SF, more than dandelion, in a smaller shop, but we were clever with stock. It lasted a couple of years and then we parted company. It was a great experience, and I wont forget it.

But in between this, I bumped into UK fandom. I was just 20 a few days, saying I was nineteen would be better I suppose, a grand age to encounter international fandom, but I had met many UK fans, and hence my trip abroad to the UK. I went to Inconsequential II inconceivable.

Here is part of a report I wrote, back then, thirteen years ago:

The convention is described as a Humour and SF Con by the Committee. In actual fact, it should be described as a 'Fun 'til you drop Con'. This was the second Inconceivable, the first being two years previous. It was held in the Tudor Court Hotel, outside Long Eaton, Derbyshire, in the middle of nowhere in reality. It was four days long starting Friday 27th May and ending Monday which was the Bank Holiday in Britain. It cost £25 to get in on the door.

This was a fun weekend and that's what everybody intended it to be. I attended the first panel on Friday, after the opening ceremony, 'Sex and the single fan'. It was very enlightening particularly about the nostrils of certain cattle. I also went to the First Disco on Friday, which was quite excellent.

On Saturday, the bulk of the members arrived. The events were, bizarre. I played 'Calvin Ball', went to a cocktail workshop for £2 and got £20 worth of drink, saw people invent religions and sort out conspiracies, got drenched in a huge water pistol fight, dressed from head to toe in cling film, got even wetter in the 'wet Bermuda shorts' competition, danced 'til my legs nearly fell off, laughed 'til my jaw ached, talked 'til my tongue swelled and drank 'til I was incoherent.

I thought things might slow down on Sunday, but not a chance. First I attended the 'Church Service' at 10.30 a.m. where our newly founded religions - vodka and chocolate - were ceremoniously consumed. I tasted a variety of cheese for £1, saw people make fools of themselves, laser tagged. We also played Live Action Lemmings, which is based on the computer game but using real people. The day ended with an excellent panel where Mr Garry 'I honestly don't have a thing for chickens. Really I don't' Starr sat on a toilet in the middle of the stage and lectured about the different kinds of shite people have. Also we witnessed a committee member, ripping, tearing, gouging, electrocuting, sawing, decapitating, blinding, torturing, sodomising with cucumbers and crucifying a host of gentle, little furry stuffed creatures. We then drank and partied 'til dawn.

I also met a stalwart of British con going, Billy Stirling among a huge range of people. This was an important turning point for me, where I went from being an Irish fan to an Irish fan in foreign parts. I eagerly got word of what UK fandom had to offer and it was a lot. I soon made it my business to attend the ton meeting and anything else where I could encounter these good folk, although I avoided Eastercon for another six years, I absolutely went mental at the Worldcon the following year.

Billy arranged to meet me, at one stage, when I was over with Dad in London. We had agreed to hang out and he was going to show me some of London's better bookshops. It was after Incon, but before Worldcon, so it could have been '94 or '95.

Billy duly met my dad, and me and dad noted Billy's trousers. He noted Billy's trousers at a later stage in 1997, and since then my dad always refers or asks about 'Billy Trousers' now, as he somehow remembers him as such. My dad although having no interest in SF has gotten to know many a fellow drinker through fandom.

So there I was with a Scots man, living in London, a man who had attended dozens of conventions, a member of many societies and defiantly a good sort and he showed me around a number of central London bookshops, and it was great, and I thought that Murder One with their SF basement was amazing, but I was warned by Billy that it was early days.

The London tube network is an amazing thing and at some late stage I will write about it.

I was staying in the Regent Palace Hotel, which has Piccadilly at its front and Soho to its rear, appropriately, and I got a tube with Billy, from Leicester square on the Piccadilly line north.

We went to the Holloway Rd tube station. This is a deep station and there are about 170 stairs or a lift on offer. Billy and I took the lift and when we got to the front of the tube station we found ourselves facing the Holloway rd and turned right,

We walked down the Holloway rd., quite a distance, maybe 500 yards, and we came to an unassuming shop front, that was mostly glass and a cream sign with red writing stating: The Fantasy Centre. I realised upon entering that I was walking into a very very special bookshop.

I met Eric Arthur and Ted Ball, the owners, very different men, and had a field day.

As the years went by, I got to know the men and they were both very good to me. I would often take trips to London, where I would try and coincide a convention or trip with a visit to the TUN and also to the fantasy centre.

I completed my James White collection through their good offices, and have filled many a bookshelf with their books. The first time I ran a UK convention proper in the UK, in 2000, called Aliens stole my handbag, Eric kindly took a dealers table, which justified having a dealers room.

Eric had a team of people, including Andy, who would attend conventions with him, and I would reacquaint myself with him and a selection of his wares at conventions.

But what of the shop.

Well I have taken some pictures to help with the descriptions, but I have also drawn a quick map, as this is perhaps the most comprehensive SF bookshop I have come across.


I have been to quite a few cities, and to be honest, I always seek out the second hand and specialist bookshops. Amsterdam is perhaps the best mainland European city, and the English Book Exchange has a load of SF in their basement. I must admit Acre of books in LA was nice, spacious and had many many books; The SF section was very good. The strand in New York was a real disappointment, maybe I believed the hype, but the SF section was only moderate. London does have a lot of bookshops and most have a relatively OK SF section.

So what makes the Fantasy Centre the best bookshop in the world?

Well let's look at this shop. It's unassuming, but Ted, who is rather like a walking encyclopaedia of SF, with a fearsome knowledge and quiet demeanour, mans it. It has a normal chair that customers can sit down in, just inside the door.

Most importantly, well apart from the huge range of unsurpassable stock, is the excellent welcome. I often commented to people I worked with when I lived in Ireland, that I could walk into a bookshop in north London, and despite it being a foreign country, I would shortly be offered a tea or coffee. They would look open eyed, as even regulars here wouldn't get that in many a shop. A coffee.

Now that's good. In my bookshop, coffee was often offered to regulars, and it was something that was offered to me, when the idea of coffee shops were nonsensical in a tougher Dublin of my youth, and a coffee was more a mans drink.

So lets look at the bookshop, I will close my eyes.

I walk up to the large plate glass windows and enter through the door, they are double doors with panes, and the doors are an old design. I walk in. Ted is sitting behind his desk, a PC to his left, next to the window, behind him are some of the more desirable paperbacks, such as Phillip K. Dick. I receive a warm greeting and the offer of a coffee.

I swing round to my left boxes are next to the window on this side, and there is a square of shelves over 4 foot high in the middle that houses recent review acquisitions, and large format books, Eric recently mentioned that its harder to find reviews, I expect that's the ebay market, review copies are on there before the review ink dries. Nevertheless there is always something new here, at a second hand price.

The shelves at the left wall house popular paperbacks, the likes of Rankin and Pratchett. Also series are elastic banded together, so that customers can buy a bumper read with out the hassles of finding part II.

These shelves are about 6 foot tall.

Following on from these, I work along the paperback shelves. These are about 4 foot high, first there is horror, I check for Fowler and Newman. Then following on from Horror, is the beginning of paperback SF and Fantasy. These are ordinary books, all second hand. I start with A, walk to the end, double back again, and back to the left wall, along this wall, of 6 foot shelves, and then back again out, and I loop around to the anthologies, and always make a point of pausing at W for White.

Then the paperback anthologies continue to the left wall again in high shelving. While I was following those paperbacks I meandered around another stand with reduced books, Interzones and beccons publications.

From the anthologies I then go to the more select paperbacks, these are first editions or harder to find pocket paperbacks, I found a Rankin proof here one time. The shelves are high so if I turn around I can see out the front window.

I know where the pulps are, but they are not my gig, I walk by them to use the toilet, and as I do I secretively glance into the holiest of holies the back room.

I walk back and sit down and enjoy a sip of coffee in front of Ted's desk.

Then I go to the hardback shelves. This is a long run of six foot shelving, a long island. A starts to Ted's' left and works down the shop and ends with Z just at the chair.

Here are modern first paperbacks, proof editions and the odd select large format book or special booklet. As I go around I take my time. Some gems are no expensive than a hardback in a normal bookstore.

I am not really into the art books, but I always have a look, and most times Roger Robinson is inputting something at hat I call Eric's desk, which has high shelves all around and books at all sides.

Along the right-hand wall, there is heavy glass doored shelving, the doors are under lock and key and here are some serious hardbacks and collectables. There are two sets of A-Z, which I consider hard to get and bloody rare. Then it back to shelves with the little NEW stock, the likes of Arkham press and NESFA, and then we are back at Ted's desk.

The shop is always tidy everything is alphabeticised. Ted the veritable walking encyclopaedia helps me when I have questions and usually knows if they have a particular tile or not, and always where to find it, although I still have the unforgivable habit of asking just in case I missed it. Its like the back room, surely where all the items I really want are kept.

Its hard to do the shop justice, but I do know that anytime I have a visitor to London, be it from Ireland or somewhere in the UK, I do my damndest to get over to the Holloway road, its actually so close to the centre of everything, just a tube and a walk away, and everyone is always grateful for my taking them there, and I just know that I am following on from a kindness that Billy bestowed upon me.

One time I had gathered some books together. I was at the time collecting the short stories of James White, so had actually been gently going through the New Worlds. I remembered reading in Warhoon 28 that Walter Willis had met James White through a letter or advert in a magazine. I wondered which one, and would they have it here in the Fantasy centre.

Luckily they had a copy of Warhoon 28 on the shelves, so I quickly found the reference. I was looking for it today, and found this online -- its different but even so it gives you the same idea, its nice how bookshops are so important:

From: AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOTE by Walter A. Willis (from Canfan 1955)*

Then one day in early 1947 I came across in a secondhand bookshop a copy of the American Edition of ASF for January of that year. I was shocked to the core. The last time I had seen the American edition of a science fiction magazine was in 1939, and I had innocently assumed that the miserable little British quarterly reprint was all there was of it. It hadn't occurred to me that there could exist any fiend so black-hearted as to suppress any of it, no matter how great the wartime paper shortage. But here was the evidence of the crime. This magazine was monthly, had twice the wordage of the BRE*, and had contained serials. Moreover this had been going on for years! Filled with a burning sense of injustice we embarked on a determined investigation of all the second-hand bookshops in Belfast. We didn't find any more ASFs, but we did find a copy of Fantasy, a short-lived British promag, containing a letter from a James White of Belfast. I wrote inviting him to come and see us, mentioning casually my large collection of British Editions. We soon found that the James was the reason we had never found any other American ones in the second-hand bookshops. James had been camping on their doorsteps for years and had acquired almost a dozen. We regarded with awe and envy this wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.*

Now was it Walter Gillings Fantasy which lasted 3 issues from December 1946 until August 1947 or Walter Gillings Fantasy Review. This is important, as Willis marks Irish Fandom day as the day that James White and himself met up.

So Fantasy had three issues, I soon learned from Ted, that it appeared between December 1946 and August 1947, so I reckoned it must have been the second issue, whenever that was. At the time it coat a 1/- and was 96pp. Fantasy Review began in Mar 1947, and ran on, for about 20 issues, with the first two being March and May 1947. So we had a quick check and although there was a copy of Fantasy Review by Walter Gillings on the shelf it was a later edition.

But where would you find it, not the zine, which I am still after, but rather the service and knowledge and resource of reference material? Only at the Fantasy Centre on the Holloway Rd., only Ted and Eric.

Of course the Internet is a great source of info, and since then I have found more out about this aforementioned zine and thought a few words here might be in order.

From Rob Hansen's Then, Chapter 2:

The immediate post-war period was to prove an inhospitable one for new magazines. Fantasy saw only three issues before folding in August 1947 and New Worlds went to the wall in October of that same year after only three of its own. Knowing that Fantasy was doomed, Gillings started up Fantasy Review in March 1947, a professionally printed fanzine (regarded as more of a semi-prozine by fans of the day) carrying reviews and SF news items. This would see eighteen issues (the final three under the title Science-Fantasy Review) before being incorporated as a news-chat section in the first two issues of Science Fantasy when Gillings was given editorship of that prozine in the summer of 1950. The feature was dropped when Carnell took over as editor with the third issue. *

I am still to this day quite amazed at how much help one can get from the gents at the Fantasy centre, it would be so hard to find people who even know what a fanzine is in a modern bookshop, let alone knowing who Walt Willis was, or have Warhoon 28 on their shelves.

Sure, no matter where I live I get to know people in bookshops. My local comic shop is case in point, here in Croydon I have A Place in Space and Steve, Alison, Chris and Stan all do a great job, have given me a load of pointers since I moved here and have been invaluable in helping me to broaden my reading of good comics. In saying that, the shop is a good comic shop, but its not unique and I imagine if I live in New York I would become a regular at Jim Hanley's Universe which is just right near the Empire State on 4 West 33rd Street and they too would look after me, as they did the one occasion I called by.

It's something different though with the Fantasy Centre. Maybe it's the Dave Carson artwork or the way that Eric seems to be an important part of London fandom, and a such a regular at many conventions, be it Eastercon or Fantasycon. The welcome from Ted, short on words but so strong in intention and genuine friendliness. The erudite conversation from the worldly Eric, who is a pleasure to chat to, whatever the conversation, he is a clever man and someone I greatly respect, but again he is the bookshop co-owner, it's great and I truly adore it.

I welcome a challenge from anyone, to suggest that there is somewhere better, and remember, better for a foreigner.

*Taken from FANAC.org

 

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