On bookshops, cathedrals, and fanciful analogies

We all have a favourite bookshop. And if we don’t, we should. We who are into blogging about books – we book-lovers, or, to employ a diction more suited to our pretensions, bibliophiles – should ideally have one particular bookshop that is particularly close to our heart. Not necessarily the biggest, nor even the best stocked, but one to which, for whatever reason, we find ourselves sentimentally attached.

For me, that is not an easy choice to make. Living as I do in a place from where it is as easy to travel to Central London as it is to Oxford, I am a bit spoilt for choice. In London, I do like Hatchards, which, unlike other big bookshops, has not diluted its bookishness by incorporating a coffee shop within its premises. And the big Waterstones in Torrington Place, near University College London, is particularly well-stocked, and is a delight to browse in. On the other hand, I have been known to describe the Blackwell’s in Oxford as my “spiritual home”. Spending a day in shops like this, if you ask me (and you probably don’t), is worth more than all your online outlets put together.

But there is one bookshop that is particularly close to my heart: Minster Gate bookshop, in York. It is an antiquarian and second-hand bookshop, and is much smaller than the ones I have mentioned, but it has character. The ground space is actually very small, but what it lacks in horizontal space, it makes up for in vertical: there are five storeys, including a basement, connected by very steep and very narrow flights of stairs. And these stairs, not having much room to extend, turn one hundred and eighty degrees between each successive pair of floors, creating a small landing half-way up. (I’m sure there is a technical architectural term to describe this, but since I do not know what it is, I have no choice but to provide laboured descriptions.) And these small landings each have a set of shelves, which one can only peruse by having to move to one side every now and then to let other customers squeeze past.

Minster Gate bookshop, York. Picture taken from bookshop’s website.

Needless to say, there’s no café here. Nothing compromises its air of bookish seriousness. And the stock is a delight. Being primarily an antiquarian and second hand bookshop, this stock is always changing, but every time I have been there – and I first went there over forty years ago now – I have found no shortage of items to tempt me. I don’t live very close to York these days, but when I do visit, not having a look at this bookshop is as unthinkable as not having a look at York Minster itself.

Which brings me to what is, perhaps, the greatest charm of this utterly charming bookshop: its close proximity to the mighty York Minster. The shop is situated a mere few yards from the magnificent soaring south transept of York Minster, which is one of the world’s greatest sights.

York Minster Cathedral, rising majestically above the city of York

The building itself I cannot help thinking of as a symphony in stone. I am not sure why this analogy with a symphony keeps coming to mind, but it seems apt: there is to this edifice an uncompromising and massive grandeur; it soars high, high above the maze of narrow streets around it, and looks down with a seeming disdain upon the small world below which seems almost too insignificant to encompass such glory. And, no doubt fancifully but nonetheless compellingly, this puts me in mind of the craggy grandeur I find in Beethoven’s symphonies, which, while enjoining us (quite literally in the finale of the ninth) to live our lives heroically, give us at the same time an image of a vastness so immense and so incapable of being adequately embraced by mere mortals such as ourselves, that we are put very firmly back in our place.

The interior of York Minster

The contrast between York Minster and Salisbury Cathedral – another favourite of mine, and one which, being closer to where I now live, I visit often – could not be greater. Instead of rising above narrow medieval streets, Salisbury Cathedral is situated in a spacious and airy close. Indeed, the world “close”, though literally accurate in this context, is also inappropriate, as this “close” is as open as may be imagined. Within this “close”, the cathedral is surrounded by gentle lawns and trees. The building itself epitomises grace and elegance. Even that famous spire, which is actually higher than any of the towers of York Minster, imparts no sense of massiveness or of grandeur, but rather of a certain lightness.

Salisbury Cathedral

For some tastes, compared to the mighty York Minster, Salisbury Cathedral conveys merely charm, is merely decorous, and is, hence, in the final analysis, merely insipid. I disagree, most vehemently. If York Minster is a Beethoven symphony, then Salisbury Cathedral is a Mozart piano concerto, delighting the senses with its charms, but touching also the strings of the heart, and sounding the deepest of chords. But then again, there are those who also think Mozart’s music is also a mere display of triviality, or, at best, of pleasant but ultimately insignificant fripperies. It is best, I think, just to shrug one’s shoulders and pass such people by.

And yes, Salisbury Cathedral is equally glorious inside

To complete the set, I think I should mention also the third of my three favourite cathedrals – Chartres Cathedral. In Chartres. France. And I guess I should liken this, too, with the works of a great composer. Bach, perhaps? The great passions, maybe, or the B minor mass? No, enough of this. An analogy that was no more than mildly fanciful to begin with reveals its silliness all too easily if stretched too far. So let us not stretch matters here.

Porch of North Transept Of Chartres Cathedral

But wait, wait … I got sidetracked. I was meaning to tell you about what I bought at the Minster Gate bookshop, and next thing I knew, I was talking about cathedrals and symphonies and all the rest of it. This is what happens when one has no discipline in one’s writing. So, let’s get back to where I had started: books. Or, rather, buying books.

What – I need more books? When I have so many at home I haven’t read yet? Of course, all bookish people – to which tribe, dear reader, I assume you belong – have been asked that question. And other questions too: Why do you have so many books in the house? Have you read them all? Yes, but surely you’re not going to re-read all of these? And so on. Nowadays, tired of explaining at great length why I surround myself with books, and still, despite my detailed and (as I like to imagine) articulate replies, encountering puzzled and uncomprehending faces, I have taken to saying, having put on as serious a demeanour as I can manage, that I fill my house with books because I believe they ward off evil spirits. That usually shuts ‘em up.

And the two books I came out with from Minster Gate bookshop yesterday to ward off evil spirits was a volume of Nabokov’s short stories, and a hardback edition – which, though second hand, looks not merely unread but unopened – of David West’s commentaries on the sonnets of Shakespeare. David West was, of course, a noted classical scholar: I have been greatly enjoying lately his translations of the odes of Horace (and I gather his translation of the Aeneid is also very fine). I am very curious to see what he makes of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

I’m on a long train journey back home tomorrow, so I should have plenty of time to start reading these. And even if I don’t, they will, I am sure, prove most effective in warding off evil spirits.

Please note: while the pictures of Salisbury and of Chartres are my own, the much better taken pictures of York I found by Google search, and they were not accompanied by a copyright notice. There was no intent on my part to breach copyright, but if I have inadvertently done so, please do contact me. Thank you very much.

8 responses to this post.

  1. I would find it hard to pick one – I am unreasonably attached to Foyles, as a remnant of the glories of Charing Cross Road in its bookish heyday. I have known many lovely bookshops in my time and actually the LRB bookshop in London always has a stimulating choice of books. Still plenty of shops to choose from, fortunately…


    • Yes, the LRB shop is a lovely wee bookshop.
      I used to love Foyles back in the day when just about everyone else hated it – when you had to take t(e book to one desk, collect a slip, go to another desk to pay, then go back to the first desk, etc. I understand why people used to find it frustrating, but there was something delightfully looney about the whole thing. And I liked also the fact that you couldn’t find directly what you wanted, and had to search around, as that searching around would frequently yield unexpected delights. Now, it’s all very bright and airy and customer-friendly, but that air of bookish eccentricity has been lost. Also, unless my memory is playing tricks, the stock has become more predictable mainstream than it used to be: you don’t often go in there these days and find an unexpected gem. In short, it has become more streamlined.

      But still, I am grateful to Foyles, to the various branches of Waterstones (individual branches may not have large stocks, but they are very prompt and helpful when you place orders), and, of course, to the very many independent bookshops around the country.


      • I must admit I have a fondness for the eccentricity of the old Foyles too. I did like looking for obscurities and also the fact things were shelved by publisher which was great fun. The new building is of course more straightforward, but they do hold a lot of the smaller presses, which I love, and a big variety of books, not just fiction. And my local Waterstones are a good substitute for the fact I have no indie close by, Again, they stock a surprisingly good range for a smallish branch,

  2. Posted by Guy Wells on April 24, 2019 at 1:06 am

    (1) re your comments on oft-raised questions on buying/having more books than one has read or immediately plans to read: You might someday want to explore the process and meaning of bookbuying itself, both on an individual and societal level.
    (2) re choosing a favourite concerto/cathedral/bookstore/author, etc. I’ve long known how to answer truthfully: it’s whichever one I’m playing/visiting/reading at the time the question is posed.


  3. Posted by Hatty Crabtree on April 27, 2019 at 8:36 pm

    Never been in the Minster Gate book shop. Sounds splendid. Spelmans was my favourite second hand bookshop when I lived there. And as a child, Godfrey’s in Stonegate. Can still see the shiny covers of long saved up for Penguins and Puffins. However, the really excellent York library was the source of most books as a child.

    When living in the States enjoyed the Harvard Coop bookstore. Amid the academic stuff there used to be a surprisingly good selection of children’s books. And vast stretches of cheaply priced remaindered excellent classical CDs.

    Since in London, Judd Books a fixture. Can always find random things to enjoy in the midst of a life where sadly rarely read entire books. Enjoyable music and local history sections.


    • Ah yes, I too remember saving up for those Penguins and Puffins. Still remember that day I walked out of Smiths bookshop in Glasgow, a proud owner of the Penguin Anna Karenina…

      And yes, Jude’s Bookshop is one of the must-visits for me too when I’m in central London.


  4. I loved Minster Gate bookshop when I lived in York and worked on the Shambles. I live in London now and enjoy what’s left of the bookshops on Charing Cross Road, especially Any Amount of Books.


    • Charing Cross Road used to be full of bookshops when I first arrived in London. I used to spend all day browsing there. Sadly, most of it has disappeared.

      I enjoy spending the occasional weekend in Hay-on-Wye. browsing through good bookshops is among life’s greatest pleasures!


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