What is it with Derry and bookshops?

BOOKWORM... Ken Thatcher pictured in Foyle Books. DER2815MC042
BOOKWORM... Ken Thatcher pictured in Foyle Books. DER2815MC042

In this feature, Derry bookshop owner KEN THATCHER reflects on the city’s long association with booksellers and, in the process, uncovers some 
fascinating facts

Recently, while looking for something else entirely in my shop, Foyle Books in the Craft Village, I came across a slim pamphlet entitled ‘Bookshops of Belfast’. Paul Clements wrote it in 1986. Probably out of a sense of being only the second city, Belfast booksellers took themselves very seriously, quite often quoting the nineteenth-century description of the redbrick city as the ‘Athens of the North’.

One bookseller, Erskine Mayne, used to put advertisements in the local press describing his place as Yuchs Iatreion [Ancient Greek for ‘medicine-shop of the soul’]. But that was in the past.

I knew the book was somewhere in the shop but it set me thinking and I began to read it. It struck me very forcibly just how few of those stalwarts of the Belfast book trade remain as a physical presence on the streets today.

In 1986, I was only a few years into my adventures in the bookselling business and I was a frequent visitor to these Belfast booksellers, always on the lookout for something mispriced or particularly appropriate to whichever incarnation of the current Foyle Books I was trading as. 

My thoughts soon turned to bookshops of my native city. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever written a definitive guide or list of the bookshops of Derry, old and new. This is an omission that I felt should be rectified so I began to reflect on my own experiences of local bookshops that take me back, I suppose, to the mid-to-late 1950s.

I have a clear memory of only three bookshops: Hempton’s on Shipquay Street, Gailey’s at Waterloo Place and Forester’s in Sackville Street. I know that there were others but I just can’t bring them to mind.

I suppose I should define bookshop. To my mind, rather simplistically perhaps, it is a shop that has as its main purpose the selling of books as opposed to one where the selling of newspapers, magazines and all the paraphernalia associated with stationery play too large a role. 

Hempton’s seemed to fulfil this criterion but I know that, as you went deeper into the shop, you did arrive at stationery and artists’ materials before finally ending up in the order department. Hempton’s had a long history and was also a publishing house, originally based in the Diamond. I have in my shop books published by Mossum Hempton dating back to the early 1800s. 

Gailey’s I knew less well. It stood on that short stretch of road that joined Shipquay Place and Waterloo Place and, in my day, was just beside the Rainbow Cafe. The front of the shop was essentially a newsagents and stationers and, since the shop was connected in business terms with the Commercial Paper Company, it was an outlet for their stock. It also sold postcards and souvenirs for the tourist market. Nevertheless, to the rear of the shop there was a good selection of fiction and non-fiction. Gailey’s was also involved in publishing and produced pamphlets on local history that are now almost impossible to find outside of a library. 

Forester’s is a bit of a mystery. I can really only recall going into it on, perhaps, a couple of occasions. I think by my time they had become more of a wholesaler for school textbooks. I know from consulting old Derry Directories that they were once established on the Strand Road. 

Sometime during the late 1960s, Teddy Knox, the proprietor of Hempton’s, decided to retire and the business was bought by the APCK which traded on into the 1990s. I have many pleasant memories of visits to Hempton’s. While still at school, and studying A-level English with Denis Helliwell, Head of English and school librarian, I was allowed to order books for the school library from there.

On reflection, this seems to me very brave and rather enlightened of him. I don’t know of many school libraries that were happy to have copies of Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ on their shelves. I suspect they remained unread by most of my contemporaries. 

One particular incident, which I have never forgotten, took place in Hempton’s order department. I was there when a gentleman walked in to inquire whether six copies of ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come!’ had arrived. I was amused when the assistant remained unmoved when the gentleman, in reply to her inquiry as to who he was, answered: ‘Brian Friel’. So much for fame in your almost native city.

I also recall the fire damage sale that was forced upon the APCK due to an act of terrorism. For days, the business offered fire-damaged stock that was snapped up by eager customers; some astonishingly good material came people’s way at a much-reduced price. To this day, I still have books bearing the fire-damaged label coming into the shop. 

Throughout the period I have written about thus far, there were second-hand bookshops operating in the town. Perhaps the longest serving of all was the ‘Stamp Shop’, run by the late Tommy Maguire who sold old postcards, stamps, coins and books. Many a gem was acquired from Tommy in his shop in Carlisle Road. The late Bruce Ford also dealt in the antiquarian and second hand book trade. He worked mostly from book fairs but, latterly, had some stock in his electrical shop in Bond Street and his house in Clooney Road. 

When the APCK finally closed its doors, a few others arrived on the scene. Michael O’Donnell opened a shop in Beethoven House at the bottom of Shipquay Street and Orchard Books began, originally I believe, in Bishop Street Without, then in Orchard Street and, finally, as Bookworm in Bishop Street Within.

A stationers called Paperchase flourished briefly on the site once occupied by the Palace Cinema but all too soon it also ceased to trade. I have also some faint memories of a couple of very short-lived, second-hand bookshops in Orchard Street - opposite St Columb’s Hall, before the street basically disappeared to facilitate a far more glamorous shopping experience - and one upstairs somewhere in Foyle Street which, eventually, disappeared to make way for Foyleside. The Bookshop also existed for a brief time in the 1980s near the top of Spencer Road. 

This morning, I found another pamphlet in the shop which was prepared by Guildhall Press for ‘A Word in Your Ear’, a writing festival organised in June 1992 presumably for ‘Impact 92’.

Contained therein is a list of the bookshops of Derry, namely, Book Bargains, a former incarnation of Foyle Books, Shipquay Books and News, recently deceased, See ‘Ere, of Spencer Road, long since deceased, and Bookworm, not quite so long deceased. I understand that there were other bookshops and private lending libraries and an interesting range of publishing houses in the town which I would really like to research but at the moment I don’t have the time to do so.

People have told me that the ‘Derry Journal’ ran a bookshop at its headquarters on Shipquay Street while Doherty’s had a shop along the Strand Road - neither of which I recall. 

Currently, the town supports a few bookshops: there’s Eason’s, Little Acorns, which is relocating, my own Foyle Books in the Craft Village, the Faith Mission bookshop on Spencer Road and Veritas at Shipquay Street.

I know the internet exists but, surely, a city with culture should be a book aware city. What is it with this town and bookshops?