Saturday, 2 May 2009

Dark They Were & Golden-Eyed

It was the name of a Ray Bradbury story too - okay, it was that to start with - but mainly it was a tiny, stuffy, absolutely brilliant science fiction bookshop tucked away in a maze of streets along of St Martin’s Lane. There was barely room to turn around between the shelves that were stuffed to bursting point with paperbacks from the US and copies of Galaxy, F&SF and Worlds of If. Every one of them priceless - and yet only 7s/6d.

It was there I discovered Coven 13 (and if you don’t know what that is then obviously I need to do a post about it very soon) but this isn’t a when-I-were-a-lad story. I’m talking about free content, just bear with me.

The shop was run by Derek ‘Bram’ Stokes, whose wife must’ve taken pity on a tubby schoolboy balancing a pile of books he could hardly see over, because she vanished out the back and returned with a load of stapled pages from SF magazines. The originals had got damaged in transit from the States, but they couldn’t bear to just throw them away so they'd salvaged the pages they could.

Okay, basically what I was being offered was a bunch of stories by the likes of Brunner and Moorcock and Pohl and Silverberg. For free. As long as I didn’t mind not having the covers. So, Moses, you want these tablets or not?

A year ago, after moving to Surrey and then back to London, I came across that pile of salvaged stories. (Do I have hoarding issues? No no no, I sold my Stingray kit and my Aston Martin DB5.) Improvising a sofa out of cardboard boxes and unopened Ikea flatpacks, I started reading “Wizard Ship” by F Haines Price, torn from the pages of Worlds of If for November 1968. And, you have to understand, this was from the days before Star Wars. SF was proper then; we even said it stood for ‘speculative fiction’. Despite its title, the story most definitely was not about sword-wielding wizards in spaceships.

Anyway, just like that damned whodunit you find on holiday, the last page of the story was of course missing. And naturally I then had to go and track the magazine down on eBay and pay $10 and postage to see how it ended.

That’s the ideal in free content. You give away 99% of your story and people pay because, because… they just have to know. Okay, it wouldn’t work. Too many other distractions, too many movies and books and music downloads demanding people’s time. But the idea of giving away the first third, say, of your story? That I like. If you’re gripped by what you’ve seen, you’ll want to read the rest. And if you aren’t - well, in that case we wouldn’t have done our job properly and we wouldn’t deserve your money, would we?


  1. Derek ‘Bram’ Stokes is now living in Lancaster where he's seen - or has been seen in the past - working in the Oxfam bookshop on Penny Street. peter pinto (spelling deliberate), who ws his business partner at DTWAGE runs Interstellar Master Traders on North Road, which specializes in SF books these days and a few underground comics. It sounds like DTWAGE is a pale shadow of the chaos of IMT's layout. (If it's comics you're after in Lancaster, go to First Age in the Assembly Rooms on King Street, where you might also bump into comic creators such as Andy Diggle or Paul Harrison-Davies.

  2. I picked up most of my early fantasy & SF reading from secondhand bookshops such as Thorp's in Guildford, a real Tardis of a place where you could wander from room to room for hours. DTWAGE's stock wasn't secondhand, of course, but it had that same gloriously chaotic sense that you might come across just about anything. IMT sounds like my kinda place!

    Most of the characterful bookshops in the South-East are gone now, their pipeline usurped by charity shops. For comics in London I go to Avalon Comics on Lavender Hill - run by Bruce Hawkins who, now that I've been shopping there for 20 years, knows exactly what sort of titles to put to one side for me :-)

    Just to bring this thread back to Mirabilis... Loving those old shops so much, Leo and I decided that Jack Ember grew up next door to one and was able to get in there at night through a loose board in his attic bedroom. Which explains why a working-class lad from 1901 knows so much about history and mythology.