Every seaside town should have its urban rock pools: places where time drifts delightfully while your curiosity and imagination are captivated by the familiar and the unexpected. An independent book shop, for example. You should find there things you already love, and have perhaps lost in lending or by moving house, then things which lead you away from that safe point along stranger paths. It should be a place where the fine visual and tactile qualities of print are celebrated, where ideas and imagination are honoured.
The space should be light and calm with an immediate sense of escape from the quotidian world with its encroaching slurry of social media. The ideal bookseller should have the gift of being both quietly present and of making you feel as if you are unobserved. They should never, not ever, be a pouncer. In fact you should both be wearing a cap of invisibility. Yet, the moment you wish to engage, they should be engaging. They should be patient with your inability to remember authors and titles, responsive to your idiosyncratic interests, ready to hunt down or produce from stock books which may just fit your bill, or pleasure you with a fresh morsel.
The stock should, ideally, reflect the niche interests of the clientele, but it should also, as a selection process is inevitable, reflect the personality of the seller. Anonymity is not the way to go here. Such a selection must be a fine and fearless art, communicating an openness, a sympathy with maverick tastes, a subtle connection with what will appeal, curiosity and a tireless enthusiasm for literature and for ideas – and for books. In short, it should emanate both authenticity and possibility.
So, where will you find such a place in Hastings?
At Printed Matters, near the top of Queens Road (park in Morrison’s, get a coffee at Grand Rue de Péra.) The owner, Lee Humphries, may not always have known it, but his entire life has led him, as if planned, to this point. An early habit of truancy and refusal of any qualifications, plus a degree in criminology, mark him out as someone who was never going to follow a prescribed route. Most of his life he has worked, with or without payment,
for charities helping prisoners to reintegrate: with accommodation, training, emotional support, in fact all the probation service once offered before it was reduced to being another holding mechanism.
En route, he set up the Legal Defence Monitoring Group, which monitored police treatment of demonstrators and liaised with lawyers to support those who were arrested. Later, he worked delivering small parts to out-workers while he set up Haven, which supplies books to prisoners. Demand was so great he bought a franking machine and the Royal Mail collected from his home. “I was sending out 50 dictionaries a week”, he said. Such is the hunger for personal development which is obscured by the behaviour that gets people into prison.
The Kindle increases our appetite, by deprivation, for the sensuality of books. His stock is beautifully, delectably displayed. A relatively new arrival in Hastings, his sensitivity towards community and individuality make him easy to welcome. He runs regular Tuesday evening talks by authors, hosts the radical book club meetings, and is receptive to any book related ideas. Go mooch; talk to him; buy a book.
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