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The end of an era

18 August 2011

5:43 PM

18 August 2011

5:43 PM

I entered the Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth in search of warmth. I had been camped on Dartmoor for a couple of nights, taking part in a cadet weekend, back in the days when I believed the army
might be my vocation. Dartmouth is several miles from the Dartmoor National Park and a section of 13 year old boys dreaming of being men marched off the park onto the quiet road that led to Totnes
and then followed the broadening line of the river Dart to the sea.

This being England in the height of summer, the rain was falling horizontally. After 10 miles or so of this relentless tempest, the boys would be men no longer. Finally, a bedraggled troop of
latter day Just Williams traipsed into Dartmouth in search of warmth and teacakes.

The Harbour Bookshop was a prepossessing sight through the suddenly weakening drizzle. It looked like the sort of homely business that might have a few blow-heaters on the premises. A fellow lost
boy and I opened the door, which I recall being firm rather than rickety, and seemed to enter a memory from parents’ childhood. It was unlike many of the independent booksellers you encounter
today, where the pervading disorder of the shelves seems a little too studied. The Harbour Bookshop was smart, perfectly at home amid Dartmouth’s terraces of splendid Victorian villas.

The books were both contemporary. I compared the scene before me to the independent bookseller in a town near my childhood home, where contemporary fiction was displayed with cursory disdain
among the dusty mounds of Trollope – I’m sure the shop sold more than Trollope, but those lurid blue Wordsworth Library covers dominate my memory.

In contrast, the Harbour Bookshop had an array of apparently daring books. I remember a hardback copy of The Secret History standing upright on an occasional table against a bare wall. It
was provocative, like a lone silhouette propping up a deserted bar. For the first time in my life I felt an impulse to buy something unrelated to either food or football.

I was saddened to read in the Bookseller this morning that the Harbour Bookshop has closed, even more so on discovering that the shop was founded by the son of A.A Milne, the original
Christopher Robin. Sadly, there wasn’t much call for wallets and money on a Corps weekend and I’ve never been to Dartmouth since, so I never truly patronised the Harbour
Bookshop. The irony is that the other shop in this tale is still flogging aged copies of Trollope. 

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