People who say they’ve only one life to live must not read books. The guy who first spoke that pithy line might well have been Stephen Cook, erudite owner of Churchgate Books here in Bury. We go way back, and I’ve always considered Stephen the ideal Brit: a blokey intellectual.
I recall our first meeting. I brought him a book autographed by Oxford writer CS Lewis, asking if he could repair the broken binding. I’d used cheap tape to secure the signed fly cover. He glared at it like there was suddenly a bad smell, and uneasily I suggested someone ‘may have taped it long ago.’ He said, ‘By the look of this tape, it’s been done fairly recently.’ Then he presented his best It-must-have-been-you face. Mortified, I confessed, and he became as excited about repairing my book as I was about owning it.
A bibliophile as well as a book-binder, Stephen approaches books like Bond facing off the baddies from SPECTRE. And his enthusiasm is infectious. As G.K. Chesterton said, there’s a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and a tired man who wants a book to read. ‘For me, it isn’t just about the words and ideas within books. It’s the physical book itself. The sensation of holding the book, tracking down some hard-to-find title which has memories for me. Every title on my shelves at home has memories for me. My books are friends,’ says Stephen.
Bury St Edmunds is full of super local amenities. Want a tattoo? I can think of five places for that. Hungry? We have everything from wet noodles to cordon bleu, with everything in between to suit tastes and wallets.
Take me, I love second-hand bookshops. Over the years, I bought many used books from Bury Books in Hatter Street. Whenever owner Sheila Wakerley or one of her assistants Pat Murrell, Jenny Gage, or Angela Peyton couldn’t help, they’d point me across the street to the Saxon Bookshop. Sadly, both closed, Bury Books following the untimely death of Sheila’s husband Joe, and Saxon, mainly due to high-street competition.
When a bookstore closes, it’s particularly bad for youngsters who turn to TV for information. It’s been said that even the smallest bookshop contains more worthy ideas than have been presented in the history of television.
Bookshops don’t compete against each other, they compete against ignorance. That’s where Stephen Cook comes in. His bookshop opened on April Fool’s day 2006 in Churchgate Street. Stephen says, ‘It was raining and there was a queue of people waiting to come in. Within 30 seconds, we made our first sale!’
Churchgate Books moved to Hatter Street, retaining its original name and welcoming atmosphere. ‘There’re many reasons why people buy books,’ Stephen allows. ‘The world of books is so diverse. Imagine a subject, there’s a book about it!’
In fact, it could be argued that the modern space programme is the result of From the Earth to the Moon written in 1865. Jules Verne’s gripping novel features a bullet-shaped capsule to propel a man to the moon. Many early NASA space-vehicle designers say Verne’s idea inspired them.
Bury St Edmunds is still blessed with many good bookshops. Oxfam. Waterstones. The Works. Sue Ryder. WH Smith. And Crack Foundation to name a few. A town without bookshops is unthinkable – like a car with no wheels, a toothache with no dentist, or a house with no roof.
So let’s keep buying and reading books. To paraphrase Mark Twain, people who don’t read books have no advantage over those who can’t read them.