The accidental bookseller

Ray Cole came late in life to a love of literature and books. Having been forced as a child to finish reading whatever books were on the school curriculum, he developed a great dislike for them. Granted, Daniel Pennac and Quentin Blake’s Rights of the Reader were not en vogue at the time! However, what was meant to happen happened and one day a friend handed him the keys to his furniture restoration shop at 91 Fulham High Street telling him that he was free to do what he wanted with it. His friend was also an auctioneer in Putney where houses, often with tea chests full of books, were being sold. That is how it all started.

But why turn one’s back on a very successful career in property and property valuing? Because, as Ray put it, it was all too easy. The beautiful house, the fast car and the selling and buying of properties had become a game. An all too easy game. Ray wanted a new challenge though he did not know what was in store for him. Of course, it did not happen overnight. The furniture shop became a book shop, but at first Ray would spend only very little time in it, keeping a foot in the property business to pay the bills. It was lucky really that his interest turned passion for books was just a hobby at first because those were the days when he had to learn the business of buying and selling books. In the process, he grew fonder and fonder of books and learnt everything about them from their contents to their covers.

His buoyant and good-humoured personality did the rest. If you walk in the door, don’t be surprised  to find him engaged in a lively conversation with some perfect stranger. This is the other great discovery he made while learning the ropes of the trade: nothing rivalled the pleasure of striking up a conversation with a complete stranger about books or facts of life. And he sure does have a few engaging anecdotes up his sleeve like the time a man walked in asking if he had any of Michael Morpurgo’s books: the man promptly autographed one on the spot for a friend of his. The gentleman, as you guessed, turned out to be Michael Morpurgo himself. A few weeks later, a woman entered his bookshop saying it came highly recommended by her husband–she was Michael Morpurgo’s wife and none other than Allen Lane’s daughter, the great creator of Penguin Books, one of Ray’s favourites!

Whether browsers find the first edition or rare gem they are looking for, people rarely leave his place empty-handed. The musty smell of old books when you come in, the Penguin books-their orange covers all stacked up against the window-and the tiny windy alley of books all takes you back down memory lane.

So how does such a quirky old-fashioned book shop maintain itself in such a fast paced upmarket and ever-changing world? Well, firstly, he is still the solicitors’ preferred purchaser over Christie’s and Sotheby’s because when a house has to be  cleaned out upon the death of its owner, Ray is not difficult, he takes it all: the first editions in mint condition, the paperbacks from a different era and even the not so good books. He is not too fussy over the quality of books because he is into selling titles.  The best will end up in his book shop and the others will be stored in his warehouse where he has over a million books. They, in turn, get rented to advertisers and film crews. He is one of the biggest stockists in central London of books to rent to film crews and advertisers. Salmon Fishing in The Yemen, Hugo and even the not yet released Les Misérables, to name just a few, have all used his service. Otherwise, people who have grown to know him and enjoy his conversation over the years often make him the sole beneficiary of their books upon their death.

So how does he envision the future? Ray sometimes dreams that a man or a woman will walk in the door to whom he will be able to entrust his book shop. But he is well aware of the reality of the market and knows that the unique situation he is in (free of debts and no banking support) won’t resist long against the tremor of digitisation and the e-book revolution. That being said, he is absolutely convinced that knowledgeable and friendly booksellers still have great days ahead of them and that nothing will replace the feeling of being in a house filled with books or equal a great conversation started over books.

Ray Cole loves his classics but he has a particular interest in travel books. He considers Wilfred Thesigher to be one of the last great explorers. His writing is a homage to a people and a way of life swept away by “civilisation” and modernisation. Another author whose writing he finds most inspiring is Patrick Leigh Fermor. They share the same tender affection for Greece, a country and more particularly, an island, Skiathos, where Ray Cole relaxes, goes sailing and hopes to open a book shop: the adventure continues.

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