Farewell to True Bookshops

This rather plaintive cri de coeurfrom the pen of someone called John F. X. Harriott (1933 – 90), whose Periscope column was The Tablet’s renowned voice of common-sense’ for many years, is a very slim (just ten pages) pamphlet brought out in 1987 by

Farewell to True Bookshops cover pic 001

the Rocket Press under the aegis of Jonathan Stephenson, a private publisher from Blewbury and Oxford book dealer Robin Waterfield.

When he wrote the original Tablet piece on which he based his booklet Harriott was in his mid-fifties and had evidently been a lover of second hand bookshops for many years, but was becoming aware that the book trade was changing for the worse. His piece is partly a hymn of praise to the old school book dealers he had known and partly a diatribe on new bookshops. He begins by describing an encounter with the kind of bookshop ‘which used to grace every town in the kingdom but is now as rare as a coach and four’.

‘…Rooms of books unfolded one upon another, and staircases of books wound upwards into dark mysterious attics. There was that marvellous smell of cricket bat oil and dusty bacon. …The bookseller…was ancient and sallow and far beyond any human intercourse. We crept about him silently, pulling out handfuls of ripe nineteenth and twentieth century first editions, old childhood favourites, books of Victorian instruction to prospective travellers abroad, and lowering to the floor tremendous theological tomes which took up the challenge at the end of St John’s gospel…’

In contrast, Harriott declares:

‘ the newest of all bookshops…sell nothing but piles of ill-written, ill-spelled, ill-bound non-books from America….They do not invite one to buy good books because they are cheap, but to buy books simply because they are cheap. Such shops have no dark corners, no winding staircases, no smell of antiquity, no ripening booksellers or collectors poring over their catalogues. Instead they have neon lights and rows of paperbacks in alphabetical order and a computer to tell the customer that everything worth reading is out of print. They are savage places where there is always a keening wind and moans of spiritual hunger troubling the air.’


So far, so goodish, but he is not comparing like with like. Second hand bookshops have a place, but new bookshops obviously have a function too. Harriott  also doesn’t explain why new bookshops in the UK are importing all their stock from the USA, or why American writers should adopt the Queen’s English. Or why no American book is likely to be worth reading. This is not a very intelligent approach.  But then our Catholic friend goes a bit off-track.


‘  The books these places advertise in lurid boxes and packets are also exceedingly horrible. Most are untouched by human hand and written to a formula, apparently by the same machine. Very many seem to have been subsidised by the CIA and the Mossad—the Israeli intelligence service—for their heroes and their values are mainly drawn from these.’


Eh? The CIA is known to have subsidised the magazine Encounter, but which book or books did it subsidise? Mr Harriott doesn’t say. And what’s all this guff about Mossad. Is it known to have subsidised books? Again, our Tablet columnist doesn’t mention a title or titles. What we do know, however, is that the Catholic Church has a long tradition extending back centuries of entertaining anti-semitism, so that it is not entirely surprising that a leading Catholic commentator should take an opportunity to aim a swipe at Israel.


As for who writes these ‘horrible ‘ books, Mr Harriott seems to believe that ‘ a machine ‘ is responsible for most of them. What kind of machine can write a book? The idea is preposterous and at this point one begins to doubt Harriott’s powers of reasoning, especially when he then goes on to condemn ageing actresses for having ‘souls as empty as the Gobi desert’ and the US

Government for having ‘no real statesmen‘  in it. Clearly, Harriott is anti-American, but it is not his prejudices that make Farewell to True Bookshops an irrational and illogical rant. Anyone else who loved antiquarian bookshops, as he clearly does, would appreciate that new bookshops also have their place as repositories of intellect and culture, and that  books they contain will eventually end up in second hand bookshops.


Both Robin Waterfield and John Arlott contribute respectively a Preface and an Introduction to Harriott’s booklet, but their own nostalgic accounts of visiting antiquarian bookshops in the old days, there is no resort to the devaluation of new books. [RR]


3 thoughts on “Farewell to True Bookshops

  1. Angus

    I think what you have is the second edition: the first (1984) was limited to 250 copies and sold out quite quickly.


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