Holmes Fest Banner, featuring silhouette of Sherlock Holmes in deerstalker smoking a pipe

Holmes Fest returns to Portsmouth after 6 year absence!

Holmes Fest – a celebration of the life and times of Arthur Conan Doyle’s life in Portsmouth and his greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes is back after a six year absence.

As part of Portsmouth’s Bookfest, Holmes Fest draws together Portsmouth writers, actors, musicians and artists in a night of fun entertainment. And there will even be an appearance by Mark Wingett, star of ITV’s The Bill in which he played modern detective Jim Carver.

Picture of Mark Wingett in black glasses, open necked shirt and waistcoat
Mark Wingett will appear in the Holmes Fest 2024

Matt Wingett, Mark’s brother and the show’s organiser and compere, says: “Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes while he lived as a doctor in Portsmouth’s seaside resort of Southsea as a young man between 1882 and 1890. It’s true to say it all happened for him in Portsmouth. He arrived with just £10 in his pocket and left eight years later having created the world’s most famous detective, written several other novels, married and with his first daughter, Mary Louise. From being an obscure GP in a seaside town, he was on the verge of international fame and riches.”

Holmes Fest will recreate some of the Victorian music hall feel – but with a focus on Sherlock Holmes’s creator. And for those who want to join in the fun more by dressing for the occasion – there will be a special prize for the Best Dressed Victorian!

Matt Parson's and Janet Ayers appear as Hudson and LeStrade. A Victorian male singer stands singing, while a woman has her fingers in her ears, grimacing.
Music Hall duo Hudson and LeStrade will be played by Matt Parsons and Janet Ayers.

Local acts will perform original works, all in some way connected to Conan Doyle’s life and writing. We will meet a disgruntled Mrs Hudson played by local author Christine Lawrence, rap poet Jackson Davies performing a piece about Conan Doyle’s life in Southsea, a comedy radio play by The BBC Holmes Service (Nick Downes, David Penrose, Vin Adams), melodrama based on true events around a duel in the town performed by the Gosport Steampunk Society (Stuart Markham et al), the Holmes Fest anthem performed by musicians Hudson and LeStrade (Matt Parsons and Janet Ayers) and actors Jonathan Fost and Mark Wingett joining in the fun.

And who knows? – There may also be an appearance by Sherlock Holmes himself!

Books about Arthur Conan Doyle’s life in Portsmouth will be avaiable on the night, as well as a stall run by Portsmouth City Council’s archivist Mike Gunton, who will be free to talk about the massive Conan Doyle Archive owned by the council. There will also be Conan Doyle-related works of art for sale – including dinosaur eggs inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World.

Drinks and nibbles will also be availbe from the bar.

“It’s going to be great fun,” says Matt Wingett. “We’d love to see you there!”

Holmes Fest will take place in The Square Tower, Broad Street, Old Portsmouth, doors open at 7pm on Sunday 18th February. Tickets cost £15 and are available here from eventbrite, here: https://bit.ly/HolmesFest2024

Cover image to Weird Tales from the Island City, "Eclipse" by Gerardo Silva, showing a cosmic mermaid holding an eyeball that is an expanding universe, surrounding by cosmic sea creatures

Weird Tales From The Island City by Matt Wingett – Now Available To Order

Weird Tales From The Island City by Matt Wingett, a collection of 9 Strange Portsmouth Stories is now available to order, here.

This collection of stories includes 7 short stories plus 2 novellas, and includes works not previously collected, as well as stories from Portsmouth Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups and Day of the Dead.

A mixture of fantasy, comedy, dark writing and fable, the stories are all rooted in Portsmouth.

The cover artwork “Eclipse” is by Gerardo Silva, a Portsmouth-based artist.

Weird Tales From The Island City is available in both paperback and hardback issues.

The cover to Arthur Conan Doyle's Southsea Stories and Beyond in Victorian style

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Southsea Stories and Beyond

It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog. But it’s time at last to deliver some great news. Over the last few months I’ve been beavering away at a brand new project that I actually started before lockdown, and then mothballed. Somehow it felt right a few months ago to get it back on the go. So, I’m here to announce the Kickstarter campaign for my new book, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Southsea Stories And Beyond, which will be hitting the shelves before Christmas.

What’s It About?

Okay, good question, even though I did ask it myself. So here goes the quick rundown:

Arthur Conan Doyle moved to Southsea, the seaside resort attached to the town of Portsmouth in 1882 at the age of 23, after a stint as a ship’s surgeon and a brief period working with fellow doctor George Budd in Plymouth. He had already started writing, but in Southsea he wrote a lot more. Many of those stories were published anonymously, were forgotten and were never drawn together into anthologies under Doyle’s name in his lifetime.

Reading them afresh, it becomes clear that Southsea was a formative ingredient for development of his writer’s palette. Here he first uses ideas of the lonely house on Dartmoor with a big fierce dog (The Hound of the Baskervilles), of a Cabman involved in criminal acts at night (A Study In Scarlet), of treasure in the outposts of Empire argued over by friends (The Sign of Four) and of dangerous confrontations in the Wild West (The Valley of Fear).

A picture of the Elm Grove, King's Road junction, Southsea, where Conan Doyle lived.
Conan Doyle lived at Number 1 Bush Villas, Southsea, between the hotel on the corner and the church behind it.

Is Southsea Really So Central To His Work?

I think so, yes. There are many, many more influences that surface again in his later work, but also there’s the subject of Southsea itself. In some of his tales Conan Doyle writes about Birchespool, in fact the fictionalised town of Southsea, and so we get a glimpse into what life was like in the town in the 1880s, with its bankers and colonels and debating societies (of which he was a member).

Throughout, Arthur Conan Doyle experiments with genre. Adventure, thriller, horror, romance, comedy and much more all feature in his work. What we see is Conan Doyle inching towards creating Sherlock Holmes.

But that’s not all. Some of the stories in this book were published long after he left Southsea, and what becomes apparent is that the ideas he developed here stayed with him long after the event. Portsmouth pops up from time to time in his later works, names from the town and its environs appear over and over. It’s fascinating to see just what an influence the town had on his work.

What Else Is In The Book?

When I realised this, I asked the wonderful writer Andrew Lycett (author of the definitive biography, Conan Doyle, Teller of Tales) to write the preface, and I added a brief introduction.

Throughout the book, I add short passages to the end of each chapter, describing how the story related to parts of Conan Doyle’s life, and to the life of the town of Southsea.

It’s fun, it’s informative – and I’d love you to come on board and help me out with the Kickstarter campaign!

Here’s hoping I hit the target soon!

From Tumbleweed to Twitter Fairy – The Petersfield Bookshop one year on

A year after The Petersfield Bookshop’s viral “tumbleweed” tweet, bookseller Robert Sansom reflects on how retweets from Neil Gaiman and Gyles Brandreth among many others, changed life at the shop for good

MW: Robert, tell us why you sent out your famous “tumbleweed tweet” that went viral.

RS: It was a miserable day. Storm Brendan had just cruised in from the Atlantic – the rain was relentless. A few people came into the shop during the day but not a single one bought a book. I don’t blame them, they came in wet-through, probably just looking for a bit of shelter, and had other things on their minds. It wasn’t till the very end of the day that I realised there hadn’t been a single sale.

It can be very dispiriting working in a shop with barely any customers. There are only so many times you can tidy the shelves or check the emails.

So, by the end of the day I was very ready to go home. But I wouldn’t say that I was feeling desperate about it. I checked with colleagues and no one could remember another occasion when the shop had been open and we hadn’t sold a single book.

I took a few photos of the empty aisles as I was locking up and just tweeted them likening the place to an American ghost town by using the word tumbleweed.

We happened to be having a sale on our online site so, more in hope than expectation I pointed this out with a link at the bottom of the tweet.

MW: And what happened next?

RS: I went home. It’s a half-hour drive to home and by the time I got out of the car I thought there was something wrong with my phone. The thing wouldn’t shut up and it felt hot to the touch. There seemed to be something wrong with the twitter app, so I closed it and restarted the phone.

By the time I got into the house and the phone had restarted it just kept pinging again. Then I realised that the numbers under the tweet, the likes and retweets were going round in real time. I didn’t know that could happen.

Messages started coming in. People sympathised, of course. Then someone said, I’ve bought a book, and another and another. It was great to hear but I still didn’t properly understand what was going on. Then I noticed that Gyles Brandreth had retweeted us and I thought maybe that’s given the tweet some traction.

Then – Neil Gaiman. Now, Mr Gaiman has over 2 million followers. It’s probably true to say that most of those people like to read a book and feel affection for the very idea of bookshops. That was when it really took off.

Thousands of likes, then ten-thousand, fifteen… Messages just kept coming. I was answering as many as I could but by 2am I couldn’t keep going any more. It wasn’t till the next day when I got to work I discovered there had been over £1000 of books ordered overnight.

It wasn’t till the next day that I discovered it had been you who had put the tweet in front of Neil Gaiman that evening.

MW: And what about the following week?

RS: Honestly it still gives me chills to think about it. As the days unfolded it got bigger and bigger. The orders kept coming in. People all around the world heard the story and wanted to be involved. We had to organise volunteers on a Sunday to come and help pack books. We basically lived in the shop for two weeks.

I don’t know how it first got into the press but within a few hours we had phone calls coming in. John did all the television and I did the radio interviews. On one day alone there were 25 radio interviews. Local and national television news crews and The One Show were all falling over each other in the shop.

Every time you went to get a book from a cabinet to fulfil an order there was a camera pointing at you. Newspapers around the world and all the nationals here found a way to cover the story. It reached something of a climax in the shop on the Saturday afterwards when the customers, jammed almost shoulder to shoulder in the shop were moving around grinning madly and asking each other how far they had travelled: one couple came from Manchester.

There wasn’t a great deal of time to stop and think about it or process what was happening but every now and again during the weeks that followed you would stop and choke-up a little bit at just how amazing it was to be at the centre of such an outpouring of concern. We went from having a fairly ordinary 1,200 followers to about 22,000 in just a few days. We took 36 sacks of books to the Post Office.

The Petersfield Booshop front desk
Robert Sansom, bookseller, tweeting away, while shop owner John Westwood looks on.
MW: And since then? Did you keep your followers? And if so, what’s the secret to keeping them?

RS: Our following has stayed more or less steady on twitter ever since. It has been fascinating getting to know a group of people like that. Some very regularly interacting, others not, but one of the most interesting things about it has been that you get instant reaction. The social media paradigm of ‘likes’ means you get a very immediate sense of what people enjoy about your output and what doesn’t interest them.

I know now that our followers are big fans of natural history books, they go nuts for Folio Society books but they aren’t too moved by poetry. Pictures of books are often well-liked but people clearly respond really well to hearing the funny little goings on in the bookshop too.

MW: And what about the rest of what turned out to be a really tough year?

RS: It wasn’t very long after all this had finally begun to slow a little that Covid was suddenly upon us and we were told to close by the government. We had gone from Viral to Virus.

But now, we had 22,000 people to talk to. We don’t need to do a ‘hard sell’, I just wave a pretty book at people on twitter and usually within the hour someone enquires about how much it is: direct messages, paypal and email mean that they can often have bought it and the book is in the post within a couple of hours of me tweeting it.

Thinking about it, I honestly don’t know what we give our followers but I suppose I hope that they enjoy the books and feel some kind of connection to the shop, even if they are on the other side of the world. We have so very many new customers now and we know what they are after so we often contact them directly if something comes in that we think they will like, all because of an initial connection on Twitter.

I hope also they get some optimism. I think optimism is a really important quality right now. It is very easy to be pushed into reacting against things all the time and sometimes hard to turn and be ‘for’ things.

I believe passionately that books are not just an escape but a way of gaining a broader perspective and understanding that there are always things to be moving towards.

Robert Sansom, Petersfield Bookshop
MW: And how did “the Twitter Fairy” come into being?

RS: (Laughs) Oliver who runs the best bookshop twitter account in the world for Sotheran’s in London occasionally refers to himself as their Twitter Goblin, so the Twitter Fairy was a bit of a tongue in cheek homage really. We also have a Packing Troll (John) and I notice another bookshop now talks about its Social Gnome so clearly the whole thing is getting very out of control. There are some big challenges ahead still for sure. We still have just a skeleton staff and we had created a number of shop units some years ago from the huge footprint of the original shop and two of those have packed up and left this year so we have lost two significant rents. But the shop is now in a better spot financially than it has been for a long time.

And to celebrate a year on from that tweet, we had author Gyles Brandreth take over from the Twitter Fairy on Sunday 8th, giving wonderful readings from all sorts of books.

MW: And from what I see of your tweets, it’s not all about you?

RS: Right. We have been trying to give a little of it back or ‘pass it forward’ I think is what the young people say. Having a lot of people to talk to means it’s possible to ask them to give someone else, maybe another bookshop or a small publisher, a bit of a boost too. We are not talking to 2m people like Neil Gaiman but it seems to have made a difference sometimes when we do a ‘shout out’ to other people and ask our followers to take a look at them.

MW: Do you have any advice to other people struggling during this time, and to other traditional retailers who have struggled generally to keep their heads above water?

R.S. I wouldn’t presume to give advice. What happened to us was luck – lightning strike, one in a million kind of luck. I often reflect on how many things had to go right for it to have happened as it did. For example, you had to see the original tweet at the right time and think to yourself, in what I assume was no more than a casual moment at that point, to @ Neil Gaiman with it.

Then Neil Gaiman had to be online at the right time to both see that, and he had to decide to retweet it. I know as someone running a twitter account of tens of thousands how many messages and @s we get everyday, I can’t imagine how many he must get and so the decision to retweet or comment must have been a spur of the moment thing. Beyond that though, it didn’t have to take off. He could have retweeted it, and we could have had numerous messages of support and a few book orders and that could have been it. There was an indefinable something that made this one take off, not just online but in the real world of buying and selling books and it travelled around the world. I suppose if I was going to offer advice it can only be ‘ride your luck’, when something comes along, make the most of it you possibly can because …optimism.

And really, it was just extraordinary luck. The last time I looked, that tweet had been seen by 4.3million people!

Devising a brand – Southsea, Sherlock’s Home / Portsmouth Sherlock’s Home

The creation of the brand on the mugs from Life Is Amazing has been a long time in the process, and it’s fascinating to look back over the series of permutations that artwork and strapline has been through.

I first published the strapline incorporating Sherlock’s Home on facebook on 17th March 2019. On the previous day, my facebook post announced I was going to arrange the 2019 Holmes Fest, with the following artwork:

The exquisite cover to A Study In Scarlet is one that I had reworked from the original artwork taken from the Bodleian Library edition – one of the 11 complete copies that still exist – another one of which Portsmouth City Council owns.

At this stage I was simply making a statement of intention about Holmes Fest 2019, which I posted to my facebook account.

The following day, however, I must have gone back through previous files and found these rather messy images on my system that were created a month before on 9th February 2019 in PSD format…

I was clearly on a creative swing, because it was only two days from this initial sketch to arriving at the following images, which were created on 11th February 2019. The evolution of the imagery was radical:

Here, in contrast to the rather naff-looking Victorian font, I was looking for a kind of smooth, cool look that I could use for Southsea and Portsmouth. At the time, I focused on Southsea – Sherlock’s Home rather than Portsmouth – Sherlock’s Home simply because it is more accurate. Southsea at the time Sherlock was created was not a part of Portsmouth but a separate town, so I instinctively felt that Southsea in the strapline was more accurate.

That winning strapline – Sherlock’s Home – was the perfect pun on Sherlock Holmes in relation to Portsmouth. So, the day after I published my invitation to artists, I published the following permutations on facebook:

Basically, with this, I was doing what I love best, creating and making. I realised that the strapline Sherlock’s Home was a winner, as friends commented to me at the time.

Unfortunately, I was unable to go ahead with Holmes Fest that year, with the sudden and hugely unexpected developments around The Snow Witch – an arts project that absolutely flew. But the idea would not leave me, and this year I finally came back to it.

So, look out for Holmes Fest 2021, and for more merchandise, too! 🙂

Southsea – Sherlock’s Home mugs released by Life Is Amazing

To celebrate the creation of the world famous detective Sherlock Holmes while Arthur Conan Doyle was living in Southsea, Life Is Amazing are pleased to announce the release of this special mug!

The stylish white and blue design is perfect for the dedicated Sherlockian and anyone with a love of Portsmouth and Southsea, too!

The design on the side incorporates Holmes’ trademark accoutrements – his deerstalker hat, pipe and magnifying glass.

It reads: Southsea – Sherlock’s Home in celebration of the character’s “birth” from the brain of writer Arthur Conan Doyle while he lived in Southsea, a suburb of Portsmouth.

Order your Southsea Sherlock Holmes mug here!

Your mug will be sent to you direct from Southsea.

In fact, Life Is Amazing is based only a few hundred metres from the site where Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes while he was working as a General Practitioner on Elm Grove, where he lived at Number 1 Bush Villas.

A man who enjoyed working his grey matter over a cup of tea brought to him by Mrs Hudson, Sherlock Holmes would surely approve of the modern sleuth meditating over a hot beverage that lubricates the thought processes!

The price is just £10 including postage in the UK!

Order your mug today!

Review: England’s Witchcraft Trials, by Willow Winsham

As a publisher, we’re always interested in seeing what great work other writers and publishers are doing – especially in the realm of the strange, of the historical and of folk horror. In a recent exchange on twitter, author Matt Wingett got to find out about Willow Winsham’s excellent book England’s Witchcraft Trials. Here’s a review of this fascinating work.

Whether you’re a believer in the possibility of witchcraft, a student of history, a witch yourself or an out-and-out sceptic of all things supernatural, Willow Winsham’s fascinating account of the persecution of witches during the British period of the European Witch Mania of the late Middle Ages and early modern period has numerous lessons to teach.

The Witchcraft Act was passed in England in 1566, and over the following 100 years or so saw the execution of 450 people, mainly women. Willow takes five of the more notorious cases and examines them closely.

In many ways, the stories are distressingly similar: A member of the community is taken ill. Doctors advise that because they can’t find a cure, there must be a supernatural element to the sickness, or a member of the community suspects that is the case. Suspicions are raised against an individual who is usually an outsider or in some way disliked by the community – and suddenly witch mania catches light, numerous other women are found to be in league with the first accused, and a nefarious and apparently rather pointless plot by the devil to spread misery on earth is discovered.

From here, a trial relying on circumstantial evidence pulling suspiciously similar confessions from simple countrywomen who have either been terrified into co-operation, or promised leniency, ends in the witches being found guilty before an outraged, astonished and fearful community. After this the poor objects of community wrath are almost invariably executed.

Reading this book is in many ways an object lesson in how a set of pre-existing beliefs will shape the outcome of an investigation. Even with the distance of 400 years, it is both frustrating and distressing to see the benighted attitudes of those dispensing justice, and the apparent willingness of women and men to condemn themselves out of their own mouths.

With careful attention to court documents, pamphlets, parish registers and other resources, Willow Winsham has recreated those times with extraordinary power. There were moments when reading this book that I felt I couldn’t go on, I was so frustrated with the testimony being shaped by the interrogators as they sought to bring their supposed witches to the gallows.

At times, the motives of some accusers stand out as utterly baffling. The daughters of women accused of witchcraft level lurid accusations against their own mothers. Children supposedly cursed by a witch clearly derive sadistic pleasure from their deadly game of feigning illness in the accused’s presence, despite the accused pleading otherwise and utterly baffled by the disaster engulfing her.

At other times, the behaviour of the accused witches is equally puzzling to the modern mind. Why would a woman admit to having sex with the devil, to suckling demons through unnatural teats, of making “pictures” (poppets or models) of their victims into which they drive pins, of keeping demon familiars and attending a coven? Thus, while the stories unfold with fascinating detail, one is left wondering at the psychological state of all involved, and at the sense of fatalism that must have overcome the accused witches, who thus resigned themselves to being the projection board for all the fears and prejudices of a court that was anything but unbiased.

It is true that some of the witches had already built themselves reputations for having powers that brought locals to them in times of need. But what really comes through is these poor women’s ignorance of the bigger picture and precedence in other parts of the country, as they enter into a deadly game of firstly denial and then confession – perhaps hoping to bring the ordeal to a close and protect other members of their family.

This last invariably proves a forlorn hope. Since witchcraft was viewed as akin to a disease or hereditary illness that must infect other family members and friends, the accusations spread wider and wider still, rippling out across the community. Clearly, the whole phenomenon was used by those seeking to scapegoat others, settle old scores or in the misguided belief they were doing the work of God. Whatever the motives, the gallows awaited at the end of these true-life calamities.

The five well documented accounts here told include two of the most famous names in the history of English witchcraft. Those are, firstly, the village of Pendle in which a genuine witch-hysteria appears to break out, abetted by rivalries between two families of traditional healers; and secondly, the name of the infamous witchfinder Matthew Hopkins.

The real attraction in all these accounts is the way Willow doesn’t sensationalise them. She pushes past later retellings and dramatisations of the events to relate as accurately as she can the true stories of the (mostly) women accused, the behaviour of their tormentors and accusers, the accused’s own sinking sense of losing control of events and at times a fatalist acceptance of what is going to happen to them.

Because of the long gap in time between then and now, there are countless questions left unanswered. The psychological motives of the accusers and the accused, the set of cultural circumstances that could even lead to this persecution arising, the acceptance by many of what the modern mind knows does not even meet the most basic tests for evidence, what actually went on between witchfinders and their victims, the secret deals the witches thought they might be making, the lack of good faith on the part of the courts… There is much drama in this book, and it is well worth a delve.

England’s Witchcraft Trials by Willow Winsham is available from Pen And Sword Books www.pen-and-sword.co.uk for £12.99, and from all good retailers, including Amazon. ISBN 9781473870949.

New Release – The Hound of the Baskervilles First Edition Poster, up to A2 size.

The iconic cover of the first edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the famous Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is now available as a poster up to A2 size.

Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes while he was working as a doctor in Southsea, a suburb of Portsmouth. Now, Southsea-based author Matt Wingett has faithfully redrawn the cover to enable fans of Holmes to enjoy the image in a brand new, sharply produced image to go on your wall.

“The original image was embossed in gilt on cloth,” says Matt. “This means getting a high quality image was difficult, since the grain of the cloth interfered with the shapes in the design. That’s why I decided to completely redraw it, staying totally faithful to the original.”

Matt says reproducing it in this way has given him a fresh appreciation of the design’s subtlety.

“The image of the great hound with the moon behind him is striking, but more puzzling to me was the interlacing gilt beneath the image. When I paid more attention to its organic shapes hidden beneath the ground, with with one shoot striking upwards out of the black earth, I realised how the design symbolised the hidden tangle of deceit that really lies beneath the legend of the Black Hound of Dartmoor, that in the novel haunts the Baskervilles. I really came to love this image, with its question marks in circles on either side.”

Matt took several weeks to get the image right. “I’m proud of the new image,” says Matt. “And of course, it will be sent from Southsea, from my home, which is just half a mile from where Conan Doyle created Holmes. It’s a great honour to be associated with the author, even in such a small way.”

Matt has also written an account of Conan Doyle’s Spiritualist beliefs, as well as reprinting the Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887, which included A Study In Scarlet – the first appearance of Holmes – written while Doyle was in Southsea.

The Hound of the Baskervilles poster costs £5 in A4, £10 in A3 and £25 in A2. Shipping is worldwide, with postage free in the UK. Buy your copy here.

Death of a bookshop – Adelphi Books, Portsmouth

It is a sad coincidence that exactly a week after I retweeted the Petersfield Bookshop’s forlorn tweet about making no sales, I found myself invited to attend a wake for another bookshop.

Adelphi Books in Albert Road, Portsmouth, was part of the furniture for the last 32 years, run by a friendly, helpful and always kind bookdealer, Rob Smith. I’ve been buying books from Rob for at least 25 years – probably for longer.

Rob has always been a very honest and straight dealer. Little things remind me of the way he operates. Once, miscalculating an amount and overcharging me by 50 pence, he went out of his way to message me and let me know his mistake.

Bookdealer Rob Smith, picture courtesy of Portsmouth News, www.portsmouth.co.uk

His specialism was, and still is (despite the fact that his shop is now closed), crime fiction from the 1920s onwards, as well as film books, but his shop also dealt in general fiction and non-fiction, with a strong local interest section.

It was a small single room with rows of shelves and bookcases in one of the Victorian units on Albert Road – Portsmouth’s street of unusual shops run by independent traders who have defied the corporate yoke and are still free-minded enough to stay fiercely self-reliant.

In an increasingly corporate world, it’s a tough job.

I’ve seen Adelphi Books go through dark moments in the past. Of course, because of their nature as one-man-bands, such owner-run shops are often an extension of the inner life of the vendor.

I know from personal experience that one danger of running a secondhand business is the frisson that comes from buying a bargain – and how it can be used to offset bigger problems. One can end up buying stock to fill the void in just the same way as food addicts bolt choccies or alcoholics drown their sorrows in whisky.

Thus, there was a period in the late ’90s in Adelphi Books’ history, when divorce and unhappiness at the death of a friend had settled in so badly that the stock level rose so high it was impossible to get through the front door. Books balanced in teetering piles threatening to overtop and crush unwary customers. Rob stood at the door, treading on books and not allowing anyone in in case they also trod on the books.

This bleak time for Rob was thankfully short-lived.

Friends and family stepped in to support him, and Rob’s shop returned to what it always had been – a slightly shambling collection of unusual, interesting and well-priced items. For most of its 32-year history, the Adelphi was a bookshop whose shelves were piled with the eclectic and the notable.

The Adelphi’s real problem was one that I see with many bookshops struggling to be noticed.

Like me, Rob grew up before the internet. Furthermore, to save money, the shop did not have a telephone line. In its early years before mobile phones, customers would leave a message on his home number, and wait for him to get in from work to answer. Later, Rob got a mobile. With no phone line, there was no internet. All Rob’s online cataloguing was done through a colleague.

Without full utilisation of the net, it wasn’t obvious how to get the word out to a wider audience that here was a place worth visiting. How many more bookshops, I wonder, are tucked away like this, with a tiny digital footprint?

As well as a committed and engaged – but dwindling – band of dedicated customers, comprising bookdealers, collectors, bibliophiles and bibliomaniacs, the shop also relied on passing trade. In an era in which many people are losing the habit of visiting physical stores, Rob still made a modest living.

And that is an achievement, especially if you set these adverse trading conditions against the backdrop of Portsmouth, which is a poor town comparative to its neighbours, where finding wealthy clients can be a struggle.

This shop, then, was at the budget end of the trade. Yet Rob lived on its earnings for 32 years, providing excellent, friendly, honest and helpful service while offering an impressive selection of crime fiction and other books.

Images courtesy of Love Southsea www.lovesouthsea.co.uk

What really did for the shop is that Southsea, the seaside suburb of Portsmouth, and especially Albert Road has started to rise in value. A few years ago, hipster bars replaced many of the traditional pubs, and there is a constant through-flow of students on nights out, spending their overdrafts on forgetting how much overdraft they have spent. Shop rents have thus increased to reflect this inflow of money. In the last rent review, Rob saw an increase of nearly double, from £5250 per annum to £10,000. It was tight for Rob before, but this hike made it impossible for him to earn a living.

After a long fight, Rob closed his doors on Sunday 19th January. In the end, he gave away a large proportion of his stock, because the pressure was on to vacate. All Rob asked for was a donation to charity or “whatever you want to give me.”

It was a heartbreaking moment, and Rob was emotional. I wish I could have done something for him, or had thought to put out an appeal. I just didn’t know what to do.

Adelphi Books wasn’t a spectacular shop, but it was always an interesting one. For someone like me who also makes his living from books, I salute its memory. I am sure there are many other independents in exactly the same predicament that Adelphi Books and The Petersfield Bookshop found themselves in – backs to the wall, overheads spiralling, customer base declining.

If we don’t want to suffer losing more of these islands of individuality to the faceless sameness of e-commerce, we need to do more to support them.

An international day celebrating the uniqueness, eccentricity and sheer vibrancy of bookdealers and of independent retailers generally – these pockets of resistance to corporate uniformity and the sensory-deprived blandness of the online experience – would be a start. How to go about it, I’m not sure. But it’s needed.

For now, let’s remember Adelphi Books and the many other bookshops that have closed in the last ten years. When you are next thinking of buying something, spare a thought for the individuals who run local shops – these ordinary and not-so-ordinary people who have consciously decided to step away from the relative safety of the corporate environment to go it alone.

They are members of the local community, and they are, in many ways, an endangered tribe.

Help them, if you can.

Buy a book or two – or whatever it may be – from your local independent.

They will thank you for it. What’s more, you will make your town a less identikit kind of a place – and the world a less predictably corporate one, too!

Kind Words On A Stormy Day

Wow. That was totally unexpected.

Yesterday, I was looking through my tweets when I saw a message from some friends. It really moved me, because I’ve known them a long time and I hated to think things weren’t going so well for them. It was this one:

That feeling was painfully familiar. I worked for seven years as a rare bookdealer. There were times I sat in my office waiting for a sale to come in, not knowing what else to do, feeling lonely as hell – and getting desperate about whether I’d be able to pay the rent and heating. There was something else – sweet nostalgia. Because I’ve bought books at the Petersfield Bookshop since I was a kid.

I remember going in and seeing the (now long-departed) grand patriarch Frank Westwood sitting in state at his desk, surrounded by piles of books like an aged magician with all the tools to hand to cast the spell of words. He seemed terribly fierce when I was a kid, but as I grew older and I got to know him well, I realised what an amazing font of knowledge he was.

It was Frank who sold me two beautiful first editions – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes – in my early days as a bookdealer, knocking £400 of the price and bringing them down to £1200 to “give me a chance to sell them”. I loved the old boy and would go in and sit and chat with him for hours about books, about the book trade, auctions and much more besides.

Then, after he died, his son John Westwood took over – just as the market in rare books began to change beyond all recognition. I was an entirely online solitary bookdealer, but John had to cope with wages, rates, members of the public, keeping the shop presentable, and much more besides as the retail business and the sale of books metamorphosed. I watched John fight to keep the business going during the credit crunch when no-one had any money. I watched the general public’s habit of getting out to physical shops decline – and I saw everyone in the business at Petersfield Bookshop keep at it, as the shop changed, responded and moved with the times to keep up with the market, all the while creating an environment visitors will love to visit.

There is plenty to love! The shop has a wonderful cosiness to it, and John (who is himself a true eccentric in the nicest possible way) has moulded it to fit his personality. It has unexpected manikins on the walls and ceilings, little figures peering out, and, sitting at its heart, a church organ that doubles as a bookshelf. Perhaps most aptly, considering how much is crammed in this shop, there is even a bookcase shaped like the Tardis. That police call box is filled with crime novels – and the whole shop is stuffed with treasure!

John Westwood’s personal stamp is everywhere!

So, when I saw that tweet, I was pretty sad. It seemed so forlorn. And I knew that to keep the shop going in a rough patch, John had sold his flat and was sleeping on a camp bed above the shop. What to do?

It was then I remembered someone I deeply respect online for his kindness and willingness to help others – and a man whom, I admit, I’ve got a bit of an obsession about because he was born in my home town of Portsmouth (and I am a nut about Portsmouth writers). So, I sent Neil Gaiman this:

A little later I got a message from the boys at the bookshop saying: “We owe you a drink.” I checked in with them to see what was happening, and found this:

Amazing. Of course, they didn’t owe me a drink, but they did owe Neil one, as I pointed out to them. I tweeted this to Neil again – because, hey, why not? And Neil responded kindly to that, too, with encouraging words – just a simple “I’m so glad”. Yet those few words will make an extraordinary difference.

Today, with the weather calmed and a bright sunny day shining down on a very wet and battered Hampshire recovering from a violent storm, I went in to see them. Overnight, they had received 300 messages and enquiries, and made a pile of sales. Even better, BBC Radio 4 news had featured them in a 5 minute interview on World At One, and they appeared in an article in The Guardian. Big, brilliant eccentric John came in, walked over to me, gave me a hug, and said: “Matt, we’re in the middle of a twitterstorm – in a good way!”

That’s me in the middle with The Petersfield Bookshop Crew – John Westwood on the left, and Robert Sansom on the right!

Here’s the thing. The Petersfield Bookshop has been around for over 100 years, and has been in the same family for 60 of them. For me, it’s a home from home. I love that shop. I love the smell of the old books, the sheen of the leather, the engravings and pictures on the wall. It’s precious. I hope, when you go there – you’ll love it just as much as me!

We live in a strange world. It’s the weirdest thing to think that a kind man whom I’ve never met on the other side of the world can make a huge difference to someone who has been down on their luck – just with a simple tweet. Let’s hold on to that thought amidst all the terrible news we keep reading and being told. We’re lucky to have people in the world who recognise that the fame they enjoy also has powerful influence – and with that power comes a responsibility to use it – not only wisely and ethically – but also kindly.

Neil Gaiman’s kind words through the ether on a rain-lashed night are exactly what it means to pay the love forwards. What a great start to 2020! Let’s hope it’s a good one for the guys at The Petersfield Bookshop and for everyone.

And generally, let’s have more kindness in the world. Why not? 🙂

For an update a year on from this lovely event, read From Tumbleweed to Twitter Fairy – The Petersfield Bookshop One Year On.