A visit to Totnes

The end of October may have seen Dan and Owen tweaking The Last Bookshop’s  soundtrack (oh yes, there are now some lovely new twinkly piano bits) but I myself was gallivanting in Devon for the wedding of an old friend.

On our film’s limited budget, it hadn’t been practical for the location scout to take in any bookshops too far afield; so I was keen to use this opportunity to browse some of the bookshops that were logistically denied us. My dad half-remembered a certain bohemian vibe to the nearby town of Totnes, and so the family and I trotted off to find amusement in the drizzly afternoon.

If you’re in the area, give Totnes a visit. It has bags of character, an attractive church, and a thriving centre of independent shops. It felt reassuringly alive. Largely absent were the clusters of vacant lots and closed down shops which seem to dog so many English towns.

And yet, a worry began to niggle at me as we ducked in and out of the various arts and crafts shops. I noticed one of the shops contained a full-length bookcase. As did the next shop. And shortly afterwards, so did another shop. I had the worrying thought that – like the treasured possessions of a deceased elderly relative divided up among the surviving grandchildren – the local bookshop may have been closed, dissected and distributed. Soon the randomly-located Beano annuals and Enid Blytons and ‘How it works’ Ladybird books of Computers started looking like evidence of a terrible retail fatality.

My pessimistic imagination was starting to run away with itself, fuelled by years of reading doom-mongering in the Guardian, and hand-wringing in the Bookseller, and indeed having witnessed enough closed-up shop fronts myself between interviews with shopkeepers telling of their diminishing returns and increased rents.

But, as the old saying doesn’t go: there was light at the end of the high street. I was soon relieved to be browsing the stock of the Totnes Bookshop (which I later learned was justifiably shortlisted for The Bookseller’s Best Independent of the Year back in February) before a purchase was made over the road at Harlequin Books. This latter shop in particular is crammed with an excellent selection of old secondhand books.

A short stroll towards the castle soon revealed a further bookshop, modestly nestled among crooked houses. A sign declared its pleasingly eccentric opening hours, and – typically – the weekday we had chosen to visit was not favoured. Perversely, this made me rather happy. Surely there is nothing more indicative of a shopkeeper’s retail confidence than in deciding to be regularly closed on a day that would evidently bring good custom. I peered through the window and saw intriguing volumes.

All told, the trip to Totnes was a satisfying step back in time. The place felt untouched by the fears abundant elsewhere in the country. That said, the fact that Totnes has its own unique currency surely can’t be motivated by anything other than a desire to keep local money artificially trapped within the town for fear of it draining away elswhere.


Though not a bookshop, an honourable mention must surely go to one of the best shops in Totnes, the Drift Record Shop. Just as I like to champion the bookshop independents, who provide a service, function and experience necessarily different to Waterstones; it is also satisfying to happen upon a quirky record shop whose eclectic stock and earnest enthusiasm is a million miles away from the unpleasantness of HMV. Accordingly, we relieved The Drift Record shop of no less than three CDs that afternoon.

The sense of timelessness continued as we moved on to Newton Abbot and Ye Old Cider Bar, reputedly one of only two cider houses remaining in the UK, where I had a mug of cider and a glass of the nicest mead I’ve ever tasted. Highly recommended.

As The Last Bookshop blog forges on with its mission to explore the current plight of bookshops as context for our forthcoming short film, Totnes seems to forecast a sunny outlook after the storm.

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2 Responses to A visit to Totnes

  1. Geodaddi says:

    Loved this tangential article. Does it presage the start of a new website? Thepenultimateciderbar.co.uk or even the campaign for real record shops?

  2. Ha! You could definitely make a film about an old record shop, displaced in time. In fact, you’d only have to pop down to Canterbury Rock and interview Jim!

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