Browsing High Street Books in New Mills

Inside High Street Books

Inside High Street Books - Credit: Archant

Andrew Griffiths steps out to buy a book in New Mills and discovers the true meaning of High Street shopping

High Street Books, New Mills

High Street Books, New Mills - Credit: Archant

It’s a late summer morning on a Tuesday in High Street Bookshop, New Mills. I was to talk to owners Adam Morris and the interestingly named Northe-Ann Slack about the second hand book and record trade. We had barely begun when we were interrupted by the door opening and the arrival of customers, Rachel, who turned out to be fifteen, with her mother, Ann.

Rachel pointed to a record sleeve hanging as part of a display in the window. ‘Can I have the Police record please?’

There was a pause. Then Northe exchanged a glance with Adam as she plucked the record cover from the display. She went to the back of the shop where she met Gareth Kenyon at the top of the stairs. Gareth takes care of the record side of the business – books upstairs, records in the cellar.

Gareth popped down for the record, returned it to Northe, and after a quick chat with me, Rachel and her Mum were on their way. The record had cost Rachel the princely sum of £3, it was a present for her best friend Charlotte’s 16th birthday. Charlotte has started to collect records and is getting a record player from her parents as her big present. Rachel was pleased with her find. The day had been made remarkable for her.

Northe-Ann Slack and Adam Morris

Northe-Ann Slack and Adam Morris - Credit: Archant

After they had gone there was silence, which was broken by Gareth telling me that this was the first Police record they had sold in three years. For those few moments, the shop was in a state of shock.

In an age where local, independent high street shops have become ephemeral by their nature, the on-the-face-of-it-unremarkable second hand bookshop in New Mills has been a surprisingly permanent feature in this small town. Second hand books have been traded on the premises for over 20 years now – first in the hands of local character Archie, and for the last four years in the capable hands of Adam and Northe.

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When Archie ran the shop, both Adam and Northe were customers, and the one thing they all shared in common was a passion for books. So when Adam’s opportunity to take voluntary redundancy coincided with Archie’s decision to finally retire and sell the business, Adam and Northe jumped at the chance. Yes? I ask expectantly.

‘No,’ says Adam, with refreshing candour. ‘I had no idea what I wanted to do at all.’

Looking for treasure

Looking for treasure - Credit: Archant

‘But then everybody said “You’ve got to do it. The shop has got to stay here”.’ says Northe.

There is something about old books. In the digital age they are reassuringly there, solid ‘stuff’ in your hand. They tell stories beyond those which are contained within their covers. They are the baggage you carry around with you that everybody can see. Then they are the anchors you throw down when you are planning to stay somewhere. You take care where they land, your books. Try writing that about a Kindle!’

Adam and Northe had to make some radical changes to High Street Books when they took it over four years ago. Archie was of a different generation and it is fair to say the business was more of a hobby to him. Adam tells me that the shop used to be ‘chaos’. ‘Eccentrically organised,’ corrects Northe.

The couple has striven to impose some order. Whereas you once might have come in looking for one thing and left with another, Adam now hopes that you will be able to leave with both.

Entering the book cave

Entering the book cave - Credit: Archant

One side of the business they have built up from scratch – which may be an unfortunate choice of phrase in this context – is the vinyl record sales. When I descend the narrow stairs into the cellar, Gareth has just sold an original mono pressing of Alexis Korner’s ‘Blues Incorporated’ for £125. The sale was made over the internet.

As he begins to pack the record ready for posting I ask him whether people actually listen to records as valuable as this. Apparently they do, but very, very carefully.

‘Definitely not a record you take to a party,’ Gareth tells me, laughing.

The cellar now is spick and span with whitewashed walls. The old ceilings are arched and low, and it feels more like a fine wine cellar, which is probably as good an analogy as any, given the nature of some of the records that are ‘laid down’ here. However, as the phrase goes, ‘it was not always like this’. The previous owner used the cellar as a storeroom and shoved in boxes of records he’d picked up over the years, along with a lot of other junk. To a serious collector like Gareth, this was manna from heaven.

Gareth Kenyon (left) helps a customer in the cellar record archive

Gareth Kenyon (left) helps a customer in the cellar record archive - Credit: Archant

‘As a vinyl enthusiast, if anybody says that they have found an untapped source in a cellar, you basically grab your car keys and leave straight away.’ says Gareth. ‘Untapped collections that haven’t been rifled through by everybody else before you are a rare thing to find.’

A journey along the bookshelves upstairs had brought back many good memories for me. A row of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books with the muted colours of the artwork on the covers, reminded me of being nine years old and struggling to stay awake at night to finish that very last page so that I could tick off another book from the series. I can understand people collecting things like this when they are older, and paying good money, it is all to do with nostalgia, the fashionable obsession of our times and an ageing society’s litany for its lost youth.

Similarly with records. But what are today’s youngsters doing buying records? Surely they must seem strange and alien things to those who have known nothing but iPods and iTunes? Why are our children stealing our toys? Back to Rachel, 15, and her friend Charlotte, 16 (nearly) – why are they buying records?

‘Because they are cooler,’ Rachel told me simply.‘Everyone is on the internet nowadays, it is nicer actually to have something.’

As Gareth phrases it, when telling me about the increasing number of teenagers who are finding their way into the shop: ‘With digital, you don’t have anything to show anybody what you are actually about. If anybody came round to your house and looked at your bookcase or your records, they could tell a lot about you just by having a quick flick through your things. But how often do you sit down at somebody’s PC and say: “Can I have a look through your C Drive?”’

Most of the record sales, as with the books, are through the business’s online channels.

In truth, Adam and Northe took over a shop and then grafted a viable virtual business onto it. Most of their income now comes from internet sales on Ebay and Amazon, and soon from their own website. They have a big storage unit as well. The shop is, from a hard-nosed business perspective, a smaller storage unit that happens to be open to the public.

‘From a purely business point of view, the shop is a vanity and it would be cheaper for us to do it all without the shop,’ says Adam.

Which does of course beg the question: why do they keep the shop open at all? But Adam and Northe are enthusiasts, and the shop acts as a real-world point of contact and a chance to share their passion for books.

‘People come to us to buy books because they want to buy them from a shop in the town they live in,’ Northe says. ‘And we buy books in for people who haven’t got access to the internet, or banking facilities necessarily. Or people who haven’t got the confidence to shop online, a lot of customers don’t want to use a credit card or a debit card online because they don’t trust the internet.’

And for Adam, a town without a bookshop is a community that has lost its heart. He tells a story about his days on the road as an IT Field Service Engineer, arriving at Worksop and asking for directions to the nearest bookshop to be told that the town only had a WH Smiths.

‘And that’s it,’ says Adam. ‘For me, the whole of Worksop has been forever tarnished by not having a bookshop!’

Independent high street shops are caught up in the perfect storm of an economic downturn and changing shopping habits. Nationally, research this year revealed that one in five high street shops are vacant. Last year (2013) independent retailers were closing at a rate of eighteen per day. This year, the number of independent bookshops on British high streets fell below 1,000 – a net loss of 33 per cent in nine years.

Many would say that this is the market at work, a natural evolution and a consequence of a massively disruptive technology such as the internet. Yet most of us also seem to want these shops to be there in our towns, as places to go to and feel things and touch things and maybe even buy the odd thing or two.

We want these places to be there much as we want our towns’ parks and gardens to be there, as interesting places to visit at our leisure. Perhaps it is time we began to question the immutability of market forces if we want to keep remarkable things happening in the unremarkable spaces of our unremarkable towns.

‘You meet all manner of exciting and crazy people,’ Adam tells me, about his time spent in the shop. ‘All sorts of interesting events happen, and lovely coincidences, things that can make your day worthwhile.’

Just as Rachel, that morning, had discovered.