When one finds himself in Cambridge, home of higher learning for over 800 years, the sensible thing seemed to be to look for a used bookshop. With only a couple of hours to spare before a supper appointment, G. David Bookseller seemed to be the best target.
David’s had the charming address of 16 St. Edward’s Passage, but—and this may come as a bit of a surprise—cab drivers don’t often know exactly where used bookshops are off the top of their head. Still, he got me close, and after a brief stop in Ryder & Amies, University Outfitters, I found an alleyway that seemed like the right spot.
My eye quickly caught a sign with that magical word “Books” on it. This wasn’t G. David, but a place called The Haunted Bookshop. Now with a name like that it can go one of two ways. Either it’s a kitschy unserious sort of place, or it’s filled with all kinds of awesome. The books in the window indicated awesome, indeed, awaited. A Haunted Bookshop in Cambridge? I couldn’t help but think it was the sort of shop Russell Kirk would have loved.
The Haunted Bookshop was the proverbial hole in the wall with books everywhere, double stacked on the shelves. They were heavy on children’s books, and there are few things more fun than old British children’s books.
I was browsing away when the proprietress asked if I was looking for anything in particular. Usually I giving a smiling “just looking around” at this point, but there was something that I had been keeping an eye open for since my trip to Charleston last year. I missed out on a cheap, albeit ex-library, copy of C.S. Forester’s Poo Poo and the Dragons at an outdoor library book sale. So now I asked, and was told, “Oh, I know it’s around here somewhere.” Thus began a search through the piles and double-stacked shelves for the Forester.
“Is the bookshop actually haunted?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. We have our own ghost.”
“Is she a happy ghost or an unhappy one?”
“She seems to be pleasant.”
“I suppose one ought to be content with one’s lot in life.”
Meanwhile, I was dispatched up the narrow stairs to check the shelves there. Finally a shout of success from below. It had been on the desk all along. Having gone through all of that I felt somewhat obligated to buy it, and after my hard swallow upon seeing the price, she rang it up.
It was then I turned to see the C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot volumes in a previously unexplored bookcase. It was like being a kid in a candy store, but I had to pace myself. A first edition of Lewis’s Miracles seemed like the best bet, and at a price I could stomach. Who could resist buying a Lewis first edition in Cambridge where he finally received his academic due? (Clearly I had made an unconscious decision only to buy books by authors whose first initials were “C.S.”.)
I finally extricated myself before more pocketbook damage was done, and was pointed around the corner to G. David, my initial target. David’s stock is mostly remaindered books. And while not a bad thing—quite good in its place, actually—remaindered wasn’t what I was after. Then I found the rare book room. I looked at my watch. I wouldn’t leave until closing time.
Old leather bound volumes dominated, many from centuries ago. It was a pleasure to stroll through the shelves, examining the occasional volume. Most prices were well beyond reach for me, but far too many were just on the outer edge to where one might stretch. It was not a safe place to be. There were early editions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, including leather bound versions. Affordable and tempting were volumes of the Annual Register from the 1760s back when a young Edmund Burke was associated with the publication.
The area that finally caught my attention was the large island where old maps and prints were kept. I sorted through a picked over stack of leaves from a seventeenth century Bible, only £10 each. Most “popular” passages were gone, but I grabbed the opening page of Habakkuk, a favorite of mine. I added to this a small late eighteenth century map of Asia, including India from where I had just flown.
Finally closing time came. I wish I could have returned, but time and finances did not allow it. I am sure there were many more treasures to be discovered in Cambridge, but I am more than happy with the gems I uncovered.