A trip to buy books…

I was having lunch with Naomi (of the erstwhile blog Bloomsbury Bell) the other day, and in amongst bookish chatter and catching-up, she happened to mention that she had found a magical bookshop in Wantage.  She described it as a sort of Aladdin’s cave of literary wonder, and it was all I could do not to push my salads aside uneaten, and hope on a bus to Wantage immediately.  My self-control didn’t last very long as, only a couple of days later, I found myself on that selfsame bus…  Since I haven’t had a day away from my thesis for a while, it felt well-earned.

It all started very cheerily on a walk I discovered the other day.  The other day I realised that this beautiful riverside walk was my path to the town centre from my new house (more or less), and so I headed along here to catch the bus.  It’s slightly longer than the walk along the roads, but I think we can all agree that this is a much better alternative?

I must stop judging places by their name.  ‘Wantage’ is such an unprepossessing name that I’d assumed it was concrete and ugly – whereas in fact it is a beautiful market town.  As demonstrated, indeed, by the market that was happening while I was there – which stopped me taking photos of the gorgeous old buildings.

Detailed instructions from Naomi led me to this door…

Rather curious that it’s called a ‘shopping mall’, since it’s actually only one shop – well, a furniture shop combined with a bookshop.  And inside, as Naomi promised, there was a long corridor flanked with books.  One bookcase was filled with Viragos (and not quite filled with them by the time I left) but the rest were romance and unexciting modern fiction.  But that corridor led to various other rooms, at strange and architecturally spurious angles, and it was a definite book haven.  The hardback fiction section wasn’t quite as brilliant as I’d hoped, but the biography and paperback sections were superb, and the most fruitful room was filled with a miscellaneous selection of classics and hardbacks that should, were the shop logical, have been shelved elsewhere.  And there were these…

(Karyn – I took the photo for you, and this isn’t even all of them!  You’ll have to add this to your itinerary next time you’re in the UK.)

You’re probably waiting to hear what I bought – and with very cheap prices, I didn’t restrain myself…

The Long Weekend by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge
I’ve been keeping an eye out for this during my whole DPhil, since it’s a really useful social history of the interwar years.  I didn’t realise how cheap copies were online, otherwise I’d have bought it years ago – but hopefully it’ll still be useful for final thesis edits!

Love, Let Me Not Hunger by Paul Gallico
Gallico and puppets was genius in Love of Seven Dolls, so Gallico and circuses could well be a brilliant combination.  So long as it doesn’t go all fey and whimsical… Gallico can fall either side of that line.

The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf
The Autobiography of Storm Jameson (vol.1 & vol.2)
I still haven’t read anything by Jameson (beyond a non-fiction book about contemporary novelists) but I do love an author autobiography – and I do, of course, love anything connected with Vita or Virginia.

The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester
I don’t work for the OED any more, but whenever I told people that I’d read a book about it (which was Lynda Mugglestone’s Lost For Words) they thought I was talking about this one.  And it’s not too late to learn a bit more about the history of the job I loved so much.

Mr Beluncle by V.S. Pritchett
I loved Pritchett’s autobiography (my review here), and this was in the back of my mind somewhere… maybe mentioned in that book?  Or own up if you were the person who mentioned it!

The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark
The Finishing School by Muriel Spark
A couple more Sparks to add to my collection!  I think that I have all of them, now – I especially like the beautiful edition of The Finishing School, and that might push it to the top of the pile – although the excellent reviews given to A Far Cry From Kensington during Muriel Spark Reading Week are strong competition…

At The Jerusalem by Paul Bailey
I wonder how many people have bought something by Bailey after reading that he was the inspiration for the author in Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont? (Is that right?  That’s how I remembered it, anyway.)

An excellent haul, I think you’ll agree – and the whole lot only set me back £23, which is pretty impressive.  It’s been too long since I went to a newly-discovered bookshop, so I’m very grateful to Naomi for sharing the secret of this one!

Afterwards, I took my packed lunch off for a walk, certain that Wantage would have a little park somewhere – or a beautiful churchyard at the very least.  I was doubly rewarded – I walked through a beautiful churchyard to get to a JOHN BETJEMAN MILLENNIUM PARK.  Some of you may know that I avidly ‘collect’ millennium projects – my ex-housemate Mel and I used to go in hunt of them, and they range from boulders to mosaics to church gates.  Almost every village has one – and most of them were unveiled in about 2003.  My own village in Somerset has a signpost telling you all the road names, since this information is otherwise kept secret.  So a millennium park was pretty impressive – and equally nice were the various pieces of sculpture with Betjeman’s poetry on them. Turns out he lived in Wantage between 1951-1972.

All in all, a delightful day out!  If you’re ever in the area, I recommend a day trip to Wantage – and, of course, the bookshop.

42 thoughts on “A trip to buy books…

  • August 7, 2013 at 9:46 pm
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    What a lovely day! I've read & enjoyed a few of your finds. Storm Jameson's autobiography is very good (& I still haven't read any of her fiction either), Surgeon of Crowthorne & The Long Weekend (very useful for those of us who love the interwar period).

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:14 pm
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      The Long Weekend is such a doveish book, isn't it? And thanks for the vote of confidence for Storm!

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  • August 7, 2013 at 11:36 pm
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    What a wonderful sounding store! Of the books you picked up, I've only read one (The Finishing School, which I highly enjoyed) but I have The Long Weekend on my TBR list.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:15 pm
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      It was quite the trove! I'm looking forward to more Spark; this one looks great fun.

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  • August 8, 2013 at 12:00 am
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    I'm practically jumping in my chair – I'VE BEEN THERE!! :D

    Random story – when I was in Oxford, my mom came to visit and she'd been doing a research project on Alfred the Great, which required a trip to Wantage. She discovered the bookshop and convinced me to visit for myself. My last week there, I made the journey and am ever so glad I did.

    I limited myself to £20 and if I remember correctly, picked up the following:
    – Pygmalion, Penguin Edition
    – Merchant of Venice, an 1899 edition
    – An embossed edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets
    – On Liberty, an edition from the 1870's
    – A two-volume edition of Phantastes, 1905
    – A pair of volumes of poetry by Keats and Shelley

    Still a favorite in my mind :)

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:15 pm
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      When you sent me the Facebook thing, it all came back to me! I just needed to be told twice before I went ;) What a fantastic haul you got there – it would be hard to leave without something wonderful.

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  • August 8, 2013 at 1:05 am
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    Loved your day trip out. I wish more bloggers would share the places they visit near their homes. So much fun to see the areas they have access to. Loved the bookshops and drooled over the Penguin shop and the prices you paid for your total haul of books. I had forgotten you collected Millennium projects and made me chuckle all over again. Lovely day out. I need one of those soon. A lovely day out that includes books. Pam

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:16 pm
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      I usually forget to take my camera with me, but this was a special day out! It was exceptionally cheap, even for England – certainly much cheaper than Oxford.

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  • August 8, 2013 at 2:06 am
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    What a wonderful day you had! I've read Hothouse and found it very good but a little odd. You'll see when you read it. Nice haul, Simon.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:16 pm
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      That's probably the Spark on my tbr shelves that I'm least eager to read, I must admit… and I have about ten I've not read, so it might be a fair while before I get to it!

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  • August 8, 2013 at 7:46 am
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    Why haven't I heard of this bookshop! Now I have an excuse to go shopping in Wantage. Nice haul by the way.

    I have another local Millenium project for you – the Ardington sundial and stones (nr Wantage). At the top of the hill in their community woodland, is a giant sundial and planetarium set into the ground. A lovely walk.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:17 pm
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      Do let me know what you get there, Annabel!

      And that sounds like a wonderful millennium project – next time Mel is visiting, we'll have to go and find it. I love it when villages thought outside the box!

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  • August 8, 2013 at 9:34 am
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    I read At the Jerusalem so-o-o long ago – think I still have a copy. I'll be interested to know if you like it.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:18 pm
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      It's probably a handy year for my century of books next year, so I'll read and review then :)

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  • August 8, 2013 at 9:54 am
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    What a wonderful photo, Simon, and just the inspiration I need to start thinking about another trip. Wantage will certainly be on the itinerary next time, and Oxford as well.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:18 pm
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      Glad to have inspired you, Karyn! I'll still be here whenever you visit, I'm sure :)

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  • August 8, 2013 at 11:18 am
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    What a fabulous day and what great books! Like you, I haven't read any Storm Jameson yet though I have tons on Mount TBR including her autobiography! As for those Penguins…. Well, I think you did well not to spend more!! I feel a terrible need to visit Wantage…… I've read The Surgeon of Crowthorne and it was fascinating!

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  • August 8, 2013 at 11:40 am
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    Oh the pangs of bookstore envy, particularly the bookcase of Viragos, when I'm lucky to find a single one at a time. I'm going to get a map of the UK and start plotting bookstores on it, for my long-delayed next visit. The non-bookish photos are lovely as well!

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:19 pm
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      It's pretty rare to find more than a handful even in England, so a bookcase of them was rather joyous! Thanks for your comment :)

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  • August 8, 2013 at 12:21 pm
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    What a splendid shop. And you have reminded me that my copy of The Finishing School is still unread.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:19 pm
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      Maybe I'll set up another Muriel Spark week next year, since the one last year was such great fun!

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  • August 8, 2013 at 3:37 pm
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    Whooooooaaahhhh!
    I also have Bookshop Envy.
    How mouthwatering this place looks. Stuff like this is what I miss about the UK.
    What a beauty!

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:20 pm
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      It was such a very English place! Unassuming, slightly grumpy, ultimately wonderful.

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  • August 8, 2013 at 4:45 pm
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    *Concrete monstrosity*, *Wantage*, birthplace of *King Alfred*, older than *Oxford* – where've you *been* Simon!!! Glad you liked it though, though not so glad you've revealed yet another of my bookshop treasures to the world :(

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:20 pm
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      Why have you never told me about it, eh?! You probably have, in fairness, and I've forgotten.

      And consider me educated about Wantage! I was bitten by Yeovil being ugly, so now I'm twice shy.

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  • August 9, 2013 at 5:37 pm
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    I love bookshop outings! I've been on a couple this week myself :) But nowhere near the orange & Penguin-y glory of your pics. I did find rather a lot of Viragos, a bit more tricky to uncover here in Canada, I think. I'll have to add Wantage to my dream itinerary of the trip to the UK I always think I'll take some day!

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:21 pm
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      They're the best, aren't they? Please include Oxford on your dream itinerary, and come and have some tea and cake with me!

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  • August 11, 2013 at 1:59 pm
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    Thank you so much, Simon. I am going to Wantage next week to stay with an elderly relative and I will search out this bookshop and the Millennium Park.

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  • August 11, 2013 at 3:08 pm
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    I thought 'The Surgeon of Crowthorne' sounded familiar…In America it was published under the title 'The Professor and the Madman'. No matter what the name, it is a delightful book!

    What a wonderful outing you had Simon. Makes me want to track down a new old bookshop soon!

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:22 pm
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      Aha! I was worried it was the same as another Simon Winchester book about the OED that I had, but turns out they're different.

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  • August 11, 2013 at 3:23 pm
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    I would love to have a look around that shop.

    I read The Long Weekend my first year of college. My binding fell apart on one reading so I wrote a letter (yes, on paper) to the publishers who sent me a new copy as well as a collection of Churchill's Downing Street correspondence.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:22 pm
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      Next time you're in England, Thomas…
      Hurrah for paper letters! We still got a few while I was at OUP, but mostly from the "I'm ninety years old" variety of customer (whom, of course, I adore.)

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  • August 13, 2013 at 8:05 am
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    Sounds like a delightful day! And I too would love to see that book shop, excellent haul!

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