Delivered to your door

After we married in 1994, we used to visit my in-laws in Bangalore (India) regularly. During the first few visits, we stayed in their home in Koramangala, a suburb to the south of the city’s diffuse central area. Although they lived close to shops, some within easy walking distance, their street was visited by itinerant sellers. For example, there were (and still are) people wheeling barrows from which they sell fruit and vegetables. These sellers announce their arrival with shouts in the Kannada language, which I cannot understand.  Other vendors come to the door selling bags of nuts and deep-fried and other snacks. Every street or street corner has a stall that is visited daily by the dhobi, who collects washed clothes to be ironed from your front door. All of this occurred in 1994 and continues today.

When I was a child during the 1950s and ‘60s, I lived with my family in Hampstead Garden Suburb (‘HGS’) near to Golders Green in north-west London. The HGS is a housing project, which was conceived by the social reformer and general ‘do-gooder’ Henrietta Barnett (1851-1936). The Suburb, whose construction began around 1904, is a mixture of residences of varying sizes built in different styles of architecture. Her idea was to provide homes for all classes of society, so that people from all these social classes could live harmoniously side-by-side. As with all the best-laid plans, this social mixing was never achieved. The very pleasant green suburb became a haven for the middle classes, the bourgeoisie. In his autobiography “A Little Learning”, Evelyn Waugh wrote of HGS (in its early years) that it was inhabited:

“… not exactly by cranks, nor by Bohemians, but mainly by a community of unconventional bourgeois of artistic interests.”

Today, this kind of people cannot afford to live there; it is now a highly desired residential area for the sector of middle class with plenty of money at hand.

Henrietta Barnett included three churches, a community hall (the so-called ‘Tea Room’), a school, an Institute, and two areas of woodland in her utopian suburb, but rejected the idea of including anything so ungodly as shops. So, HGS had, and still has, no shops within its boundaries. The nearest shopping centres are Golders Green, Temple Fortune, and the Market Place that is located on an arterial road that divides HGS into two separate parts. Unless one lived near to any of these shopping areas, the nearest shops could be up to a mile away from your front door. Because of this, HGS used to be visited by various roving services in my day.

The milkman made deliveries of dairy products every day. These were loaded on small electrically powered vehicles (‘milk floats’) that moved almost silently along the streets. The only sound they made was the tinkling of glass milk bottles as they rattled in the wagon. The milkman collected his stock from the Express Dairy Depot at Hoop Lane on the edge of the boundary of HGS. It was at this depot that the electric vehicle’s batteries were charged overnight. Newspapers were delivered to the door by a delivery boy employed by a local newsagent. A man with a French accent wearing a beret used to cycle around HGS selling strings of onions. For some reason unknown to me my mother never bought onions from him, but her sister, who lived close by, always did. Several times a week a tatty lorry used to cruise slowly along our streets. His vehicle contained a vegetable shop.

In summer, vans selling ice-cream would occasionally cruise along our street. When they stopped, they played a pre-recorded musical (well, not very musical) jingle to attract customers’ attention.

Every now and then, a knife grinder would arrive on his bicycle. He had a pedal-operated grinding wheel that spat out a shower of sparks when a knife was being sharpened. My mother never employed the grinder, claiming that he would ruin her kitchen knives. Being a sculptress, she was used to sharpening her chisels on a stone, and probably sharpened her own knives as well. Cries of what sounded to me like “old iron and echo” heralded the arrival of the scrap metal collector. When I was very young, he arrived with a horse-drawn wagon. This was later replaced by a battered motor driven lorry.

Twice a week, a mobile public library visited HGS. I never used it, preferring to walk to the better stocked library in Golders Green. The only commercial establishment, the nearest approximation to a shop, within HGS was Mendels Garage, which sold petrol and repaired cars. This has long since disappeared as did some of the other services mentioned above.

A dhobi ironing in Bangalore

Moving fast forward to today’s world, there is little need to leave your home if you do not feel like doing so. With the advent of the Internet, everything can be brought to your front door: from cooked meals to rare books, clothes, and almost anything you might want to buy. Even fast-food joints like McDonald’s will deliver your favourite snacks. Recently, a friend in Bombay needed a new rubber stamp costing a very few rupees. He rang the manufacturer to order it and was told that it would be delivered to his home within a very short time.

The convenience of home delivery is obvious, but this may jeopardise the future of shops that rely on people entering their stores to buy things.  Such is life, as so many people say, rather irritatingly I feel!

Book shopping

I have been addicted to buying and owning books since I can first remember. Since my youth, the ways of purchasing books have changed considerably, not least due to the use of the Internet.

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When I was a child, there were two main options open to the purchaser of books: new and second-hand. Both types of books had to be bought in shops. There was also a third option: book clubs. These issued a list of books, which the customer ordered by post. Many of these clubs discounted books but made it a condition of joining that a member should make one purchase a month or every several months.

Every Saturday morning when I was a child, that is during the 1950s and ‘60s, I used to accompany my parents to Hampstead Village in north-west London. Each visit included spending time in the High Hill Bookshop, which used to exist on Haverstock Hill. My sister and I were each allowed to choose one book each week. It was that way that I built up my collection of Tintin books, written and illustrated by Hergé. In addition to these, I bought many books suitable for children and young adolescents.

To reach the High Hill Bookshop, we used to walk along Flask walk, where there used to be a shop that sold used, but not quite antiquarian, books. This was opposite what is now one of Hampstead’s only remaining second-hand books shops, Keith Fawkes. It was at the now non-existing shop that I believe my love of second-hand bookshops began. I recall finding a used but detailed guidebook to Indonesia and Malaysia one Saturday. I had already been bought a book at High Hill. My parents said that I could not buy the guide-book that day but if it was still in the shop the following week, I could buy it then. Sadly, it had been sold when I returned the following Saturday.

Hampstead was rich in second-hand bookshops in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. One of my favourites was in Perrins Lane.  At number 25 Perrins Lane, there is what looks like a small, typical late 18th/early 19th century terraced house. This was the home and shop of the second-hand book seller Mr Francis Norman. John Fowles, author of “The Collector”, “The Magus”, and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, wrote in his “The Journals (Volume 1)” that Norman was:

“… a bluff, awkward, friendly second-hand bookseller with a mind like a jackdaw’s nest and a shop which must rank as one of the dirtiest, most disorganised and lovable in North London. … Prices vary according to Norman’s mood.”

That was in 1956. Ten years later, Norman’s bookshop had become a regular haunt for me and my friends the Jacobs brothers. By then, Mr Norman, whose name I only discovered recently, seemed to us to be a very old man. We used to call his, un-named shop, ‘the old man’s shop’. It was just as Fowles described.

In “Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion”, M Stern and L Rosenberg wrote of Mr Norman:

When he moved from his Gower Street basement to Hampstead Heath, he had moved not only his books but all the dust and grime and debris …”

Mr Norman did not mind us spending hours rummaging through his totally un-organised heaps of books. I believe that he enjoyed our company. Every now and then, he would read something out of a book, often in Latin, and began to guffaw. We had no idea what he had found so humorous. I found all kinds of wonderful books in his shop, including several beautiful world atlases dating from between the two World Wars. Mr Norman never charged us much for whatever we managed to dig up in his ground floor shop. He kept the valuable old books on an upper floor in his personal quarters. Occasionally, on Sunday mornings, we would visit Mr Norman’s shop when it was closed. We used to knock on his front door, and he would open up the shop for us, still dressed in his pyjamas.

By the time I knew Mr Norman, he was a very sad man. Fowles writes in his “The Journals (Volume 2)” that in November 1968, he visited the ‘Old Man’s shop’ and learnt that not only had Mr Norman recently lost his fifteen-year-old daughter Janey, when she slipped off the roof of his shop whilst trying to rescue her cat. Also, his wife had been so seriously schizophrenic, and he had not seen her for years. Mr Norman had had to be both father and mother to Janey. In addition to all these misfortunes, Mr Norman had lost his first wife and family when they were all killed by a V (‘flying’) bomb in WW2. It is no wonder that Norman told Fowles:

Money does not mean anything to me now … The shop keeps me alive, that’s all I keep it on for.”

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All of that was long ago. Today, there are still bookshops that only purvey brand new volumes. There are still antiquarian bookshops, but their number is decreasing. And, there are newcomers on the scene. There are the familiar on-line booksellers like Amazon, ABEbooks, and Bookdepository, which sell new and used books over the Internet. These are useful for buying books at discounted prices. However, browsing on-line bookshops is more tedious than looking at physical bookshelves in a bookshop. I have to admit – and I hope that no one running a physical, real bookshop will be upset by this – that if I find a new book in a real bookshop, I will often buy it on-line if that allows me to benefit from a discounted price. Clearly, not everyone thinks like me because there are still many large bookshops occupying prime sites in Britain’s main shopping precincts and streets.

For the lover of hard to find books, the Internet offers another useful facility, namely http://www.bookfinder.com. This incredibly useful site allows the reader to search all over the world for books that are not available locally. If the book is still available for sale, bookfinder will let you know where they are available, and at wat price, and will then allow you to buy it. This system helps both the customer and the book seller. Say, for example, you have a bookshop in a hardly visited town in Alabama, which attracts the footfall of only local customers. Buy listing your stock on bookfinder, people all over the world can become aware of your stock and pay for it.

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The advent of the Internet may have made book buying more versatile, but nothing quite beats the book buyer’s excitement of browsing the overstocked shelves of a somewhat shambolic second-hand bookshop. So long live dusty second-hand bookshops and book-filled charity shops (‘thrift shops’)!