Mike Goldmark: Permanently shelved

National treasure Mike Goldmark has shut up shop. Nicholas Royle bids a sad farewell to a bookselling and publishing legend

Sunday 20 March 2005 01:00

The deal with Goldmark Books was this: you went in and started browsing, someone gave you a cup of coffee, and within half an hour you found a book you had been looking for since 1982. A short time later you left with a brown paper bag containing at least half-a-dozen books under your arm. Your wallet might not have been lighter, but your heart was.

The deal with Goldmark Books was this: you went in and started browsing, someone gave you a cup of coffee, and within half an hour you found a book you had been looking for since 1982. A short time later you left with a brown paper bag containing at least half-a-dozen books under your arm. Your wallet might not have been lighter, but your heart was.

It was around 1990, an early yellow-jacketed edition of the Skoob Directory of Secondhand Bookshops in my pocket, that I first crossed the threshold. Situated in the Rutland market town of Uppingham, halfway between Leicester and Peterborough, Goldmark Books, strangely, was the kind of place you might pass on the way to somewhere else. But only by making a detour. That detour, I realised, would always be worth making.

Mike Goldmark was born in 1944 in Welwyn Garden City. He moved to Uppingham in 1972 and soon became a partner in a secondhand bookseller's by offering the owner the £500 he needed to remain afloat. In 1974 he bought the present premises on Orange Street and moved the business, of which he was now the sole owner, across.

The bookshop thrived, and 11 years later a wing was added to house the Goldmark Gallery. In 1986 he branched out into publishing. Then last year, Goldmark told me he was going to close down the bookshop and concentrate on the gallery. Much as I love the gallery, I instantly felt a deep sense of loss, then immediately went into denial. He would never do it.

A month into 2005, Goldmark did indeed close down the bookshop, giving away the entire stock. With an unusually heavy heart, I paid Goldmark my first visit of the new year.

A genial presence in open-toed sandals (he went barefoot for a decade from 1992 - "I have no idea why" - before easing into sandals after a heart attack two years ago), Goldmark presides over the communal staff lunch, served informally in a room that links the gallery with the now empty bookshop.

"To begin with, the bookselling side was much more important," Goldmark says. "I loved it, and the truth is that I still do. For a number of years I did both and then I think the bookshop suffered, firstly because it wasn't getting enough attention and secondly because the internet started to change everything. Years and years ago we'd take fabulous amounts of money on a Saturday. A couple would come in and they'd find six books each and they'd spend thirty or forty quid. They'd have spent an hour and a half with us. They'd have had a coffee and a chat and I used to get real enjoyment out of it. The books were relatively small amounts of money, but we sold so many that the business was tremendous. Now, very very seldom does anyone come in and buy six books. You're more likely to get a couple coming in and they find 'one each, darling', and one's a fiver and the other's £7.50, and then they have a discussion about which one of the two they're going to buy. And if you went round to the Falcon Hotel an hour later you'd find them in there buying a round of gin and tonic that's going to cost twice that."

Every time I visited the shop, I would find something I wanted, whether it was a first edition by William Sansom or Derek Marlowe, a short story anthology missing from an otherwise complete set, or back copies of London Magazine containing stories by Edward Fox or Alan Beard.

"It used to feel to us and to other people as if the whole thing were magical," Goldmark says. "We never went anywhere to buy. We just stood here and the stuff came in. Quite early on I went to a bookshop in a little town just down the road and a guy came in with a box of books and the bookseller in there looked at the box and he said to this chap, 'All crap. I'll give you a fiver.' And the guy picked up the box, didn't say anything and walked out. We got outside and I said to this chap, 'I've got a bookshop down the road. Do you mind if I have a look, because actually there are a few things on the top that look fine to me?' And he said, 'They're yours.' I said, 'We haven't worked out a price yet,' and he said, 'I wasn't going to ask the man for any money. I was going to give him the books, but after that...' And he gave me this box of books. I found out very early on that the truth was that people selling books were not necessarily looking for the most money they could possibly get. We just tried to be as nice to people when we were buying as we were when we were selling. And the result was that car-loads would arrive from all over the country. If we needed something in particular - I don't know whether I dare say this - we used to think them in. It is actually true. It used to happen quite often."

Signs informing customers of the closing-down sale went up towards the end of 2004. I still didn't believe Goldmark was serious, even when I tried to buy a few London Magazines and he told me to help myself to the whole shelf.

"We had a sale, sold a few, and then I wasn't sure whether the rest were worth much," Goldmark tells me. "Somebody said, 'How much? I'll take the lot.' And we let him have them. As it happens he complained bitterly because I think he thought he was going to make a fortune just passing them on to someone else without doing anything."

That must leave a sour taste? "No..."

After a pause, Goldmark adds a four-letter word that's startling in these surroundings, the walls hung with original engravings by Eric Gill and William Blake. Through the open doorway, I am taunted by the sight of the empty, skeletal shelves.

Visiting the shop in 1994 and chatting Continued from previous page

with Goldmark, I raved about Iain Sinclair's new novel, Radon Daughters, which I had just reviewed for a magazine. I was a slightly more ignorant fool then than I am now and did not know I was talking to the man who had published Sinclair's first novel, White Chappell Scarlet Tracings, in 1987. He handed me a copy, which he allowed me to pay for, but insisted I also have a free copy of Sinclair's Suicide Bridge in the original Albion Village Press edition.

"Sinclair had been a customer almost since the beginning. I trusted him so much that if I got a first edition I would put it in a pile. He would come once a month and I would show him the pile, unpriced, and I would accept whatever he gave me. It was a lovely way to deal. He gave me one or two scraps of stuff that he'd published. None of which I understood at all. Suicide Bridge, things like that. He told me that he was going to write a novel. I told him that if he couldn't find a publisher I would publish it. And months later he came back. He had wanted three months' space. I remember him telling me he'd been thinking it for 14 years and it was a question of actually getting it down on paper. I think I offered to give him the money and he wouldn't take it. Then he found a parcel of books on Jersey - or Guernsey, one of those two - and I flew out there, bought them. He took some of the best of them. I think that gave him the three months that he required, when he had sold those. Then I didn't see him for another six months and he came and said that the book had gone out and been turned down by everybody. He wasn't going to hold me to what I had said, but I said no, I'd publish it. He said, 'Do you want to read it?' and I said, 'No, I don't think that would be a good idea.' We had no sales force. We had no marketing. Nothing. And it turned out we didn't need it. All we had to do was make a really nice book and the publicity just came out of the woodwork at us. And that happened the second time a few years later when we published Aidan Andrew Dun's Vale Royal. Again we had no idea how we were going to sell the book. And the right person walked in through the door, the right journalist, and away we went. That's the way we do most things."

While the secondhand books have gone, new books will continue to be produced, the publishing operation expanding alongside the gallery. This year will see the publication of a book of short stories by Glyn Hughes as well as two art books.

"I've always wanted to be in a situation where I could do three or four really good books a year, of the sort that other people don't want to publish, and to produce them beautifully, and hopefully illustrate them as well. And maybe, one day, I'll get to read again."

It's a strange and rather sad fact that for years this passionate lover of books, who in 1995 hired the Royal Albert Hall at a cost of £20,000 to put on a poetry reading featuring Allen Ginsberg and Paul McCartney among 14 other poets, has been unable to read. "I just get extremely tired when I start doing it. I'll read an article and I read reference books every day for work, but that's all. It's bloody embarrassing."

The Goldmark Gallery, 14 Orange St, Uppingham, Rutland (01572 821424)

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