Always a matter of rejoicing to hear of a new bookshop opening, rather than yet another one closing. Not that Hall’s Bookshop on Chapel Place in Royal Tunbridge Wells is strictly speaking a new bookshop. Reuben Hall first opened his doors for business in something like 1898 and Hall’s has been a much-loved institution ever since – one of the proper old-fashioned country bookshops.
When Lloyd’s Bank threatened to redevelop the site in 1988 they were eventually forced to back down in the face of public outcry – and you know how difficult it is to get a bank to see sense. The shop has passed through various hands in the course of its history – from Reuben Hall to his friend Charles Avery in 1922, then to his assistant Harry Pratley (ABA President in 1959-1960), who started work in shop at the age of fourteen, at some point in the ’thirties. The shop made the short move from No. 18 Chapel Place to No. 20-22 Chapel Place in 1938 and since then, successively under Elizabeth Bateman, who went to work for Harry in 1955 and took over in 1967, and then Sabrina Izzard, who joined the firm in 1981 and took over in 1983, it has probably always looked much the same.
I last passed by some six or seven years ago – the old shop much as it had always been. Creaking and cluttered, a little gloomy I seem to recall, but crammed with stock at reasonable prices and the very image of a film-set old bookshop. Sabrina decided to retire about a year ago and the future of the shop must at that point have looked uncertain, but the news soon leaked out that an in some ways surprising new owner had been found.
Adrian Harrington, formerly of Chelsea and Kensington, president of the ABA in 2001-2003, president of ILAB in 2008-2009, and long one of the most influential figures in the trade, had taken the decision to close down his London shop and relocate – lock, stock and barrel – to Tunbridge. But not just to move his own very successful rare book business, Adrian was determined from the outset to keep Hall’s alive as the traditional second-hand bookshop and focal point of the town it had always been.
This needed some careful planning and the premises needed much work. A new roof for starters. Slowly over the last year, Hall’s has been reborn. The floor has been raised a couple of feet to increase the height of the basement sufficiently to open that up as a gallery for posters, prints, maps, and engravings. The upper floor is being made over to house Adrian Harrington Rare Books and the ground floor completely refurbished to become – well, what it always was – Hall’s Bookshop of Royal Tunbridge Wells – a twenty-first century version, perhaps, but still proudly boasting the old 10p Bargain Box outside.
Finding ourselves in that part of the world last week we obviously called in to see how things were going. Adrian’s son-in-law, Jon Gilbert (author of the prize-winning Ian Fleming bibliography) was at the helm, his charming, coffee-bearing and pastel-haired daughter home for the university holidays and helping out. The Harrington team had finally managed to get the shop re-open a couple of weeks before Christmas. Still work being done – Adrian turned up before too long with yet more shelving for upstairs. It will still be a week or two before all the books are ferried over from Kensington and the top floor opens. They’re still waiting for a proper broadband connection and more than a bit hampered by that. And the basement gallery wasn’t quite ready – but it will be very soon.
In the meantime, there were still plenty of books to look at – for the most part the best of the old Hall’s stock, but all now reshelved and reorganised. I was soon building up a very nice little pile. Even on a dismal Tuesday in that never-never land between Christmas and New Year, there were plenty of local passers-by popping in as well. One after the other they chorused their delight that this was still going to be a bookshop. Some had feared that the extensive refurbishment work was all looking so smart that the intention could only be to turn the place into yet another coffee-shop. Others loved how light and airy the place now was, how accessible the books were, how much fun it was – and all rather warmer than it used to be too. There are boxfuls of books going out and coming in every day.
To be sure there will be the occasional dissenting voice, it’s not hard to love the way the place used to look. Many of us were nourished on creak and clutter, it’s in our bones – but loving the look and buying the book are perhaps two different things. Those feasts of clutter just don’t work any more, that’s why they have virtually all disappeared. Proof and pudding.
A cheque for two full Hall’s carrier-bags of books (a pretty decent haul these days) was my modest contribution to all that the refurbishment must be costing. This is a bold move. This is a brave move – and one much to be applauded. It deserves all our support – the sort of country bookshop that has created generations of book-collectors has become all but extinct. Let us hope that this is the turning of the tide and its day is about to return.