Monday, 9 April 2012

Vintage Penguins in Oxford

The UK holiday may have been planned around visits to bookshops, but there was always one constraint on any itinerary - I wanted to be in Oxford on a Sunday evening so that I could attend Evensong at Magdalen College.

Magdalen Chapel
Photo courtesy of Lawrence OP on Flickr

How amazing that you can do this: present yourself at the Porter's Office at 6pm and be ushered through and directed to a 15th Century chapel with a vaulted ceiling and carved walls, the whole space lit only by candlelight, and then allowed to take part in a ceremony which has endured for years, all with no preparation and for no cost. There is just no way to take such an opportunity for granted, living as I do in a city of new buildings and relatively recent traditions.

It was not a comfortable experience. It was freezing outside, but stifling in the chapel, and the hard-backed stalls leave you enthusiastic to stand or kneel. But it is an intimate experience, and you feel as though you are a part of something.

The younger choir boys amble in, raw and fidgeting like any young boys. They are followed by the older choir boys, much more solemn and reverent. Nothing about the sight of this procession prepares you for the moment when they begin to sing, and their voices fill the entire space; it was stunning; it was unbelievable. The service lasts less than an hour and apart from the readings it is all sung, partly by the choir, partly by the Dean, and partly by the public, all to the accompaniment of the chapel organ.

Such a wonderful experience could only be equalled by one thing: an invitation from Simon, author of the blog Stuck in a Book, to meet him for lunch on the Monday at a vegetarian restaurant on St Michael's Street, followed by an afternoon being escorted through the better second hand book shops in Oxford.

The most interesting book shop was just next door to the restaurant - Simon had clearly chosen our meeting place well. Perhaps it is evident from the photo that Arcadia is only small and actually a gift shop, but it has a room at the back with shelves of paperbacks for sale, and it does seem to specialise in old numbered Penguins and Pelicans. The range of the prices is wide, with a bin of free books and a shelf with those reduced to one pound outside, and quite expensive older Penguins near the till. Most of those I purchased averaged around 2 pounds.  Unusually though they are all wrapped in cellophane, which was not a problem for me, but made things difficult for Pam ( when I brought her there the next day) who only buys first editions.

Albion Beatnik and bicycle
Image courtesy of the girl in the park on Flickr
The quirkiest book shop Simon and I visited was the Albion Beatnik on Walton Street. It stocked new books at the front, second hand books at the back, and also seemed to operate as a cafe. Part of the attraction seemed to be a kind of atmosphere; it functioned as a place to hang out, and loads of people were sitting around on old sofas, though not so much reading as using laptops. And although I found a couple of old Penguins, including one by Edmund Crispin which I'm always keen to find, it was perhaps more memorable on account of the personnel. Apropos of nothing, the owner approached me and declared that Simon had claimed an ability to make jelly, which he doubted. Well how do you answer that?

Pam and I checked out of our hotel the next day and wandered around Oxford until it was time to take the airport bus to Heathrow. During that time I serendipitously found one more store which stocked old Penguins. Although Blackwell's on Broad Street mostly stocks new books, it houses a second hand section on it's top floor, and there I found my final purchases, another five old Penguins, all priced at two pounds.

The cellophane-wrapped books outside Arcadia


  1. It sounds like you had a lovely time. I do love Oxford. I have too attended a service at Magdalen College chapel, it is quite special.

  2. When I lived in Oxford that shop on St Michael's St was a really superb second hand bookshop - everyone called it "John's" because a man called John owned it - not sure if that was its real name. A really wonderful experience, going there.

  3. Lovely post celebrating a wonderful afternoon! Thanks for it, Karyn.

  4. When I was lucky enough to visit Oxford a few years ago, I had my heart set on buying a copy of Gaudy Night actually in Oxford - but had no luck in the new bookshops. Now I know where to look next time! I did collect several Trollope novels from the OUP bookshop, though, which was a definite consolation.

  5. Wow, that is just a dream visit, isn't it? A perfect visit. I can't imagine anything better - music, friendship and books!



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...