Saturday, 4 February 2012

Bookshop Spotlight #1: Ripping Yarns Bookshop

Before Christmas I said I'd like to do some blog posts about individual bookshops across the world. I've had lovely emails from bookshops all over saying that they'd like to to take part - bookshops in the UK, America, Africa, Australia, Japan... So, I'm cracking on with organising those. But, first, I'm starting here. A blog post about Ripping Yarns bookshop, an antiquarian bookshop in North London. I've worked here for two and a half years, and it's where I started writing 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' properly.

 [photo by Iona]

There I am, surrounded by books.

We were also very excited yesterday when Andrea Riseborough said that Ripping Yarns is her favourite British shop. Hurray! Thanks, Andrea!

Celia Hewitt is the owner of Ripping Yarns. Yesterday, when she came in, I sat her down and got her talk about the history of the bookshop. It's a lovely story. So make yourself a cup of tea and have a read!

So, Celia, tell us about the history of the bookshop

"I was an actress [well, I still am an actress], and I used to do a lot of touring. I spent a lot of my time in secondhand bookshops all over the place. I accumulated all different kinds of Victorian books, as well as schoolgirls books, such as Angela Brazil, and childhood favourites like Biggles and Jennings. And then, when I was out of work, someone advertised for help in an antique shop on Archway Road. It was next door to a run-down bookshop from the 1930s that had recently closed down.

While working there, I found that people would come with suitcases full of books, looking for the bookshop next door in the hope of selling them. Partly out of curiosity, I eventually started buying them and, in the end I had so many that I decided to take the lease on the derelict bookshop next door - that was over twenty five years ago. We redesigned it, painted it, made it look clean, and in the window we had a model of Just William, because I had a lot of William books. We haven’t got him anymore because he got very old and dirty. I put him in the outside bin at home and it scared the dustbin men out of their wits. [laughs]

 [photo by Laura Braun]

I had no idea how to run a business but my husband and I both loved books. He was a writer and a poet [Adrian Mitchell], and whenever he had a new book out, usually near Christmas, he’d come in to the shop do a reading. When I bought books for the shop, he would to go through them first and say ‘No, I need that one; I need it for research.’ I did say to him that he wasn’t going to live long enough to write all the plays that he wanted, and in fact he didn’t, but all the Pushkin books he bought have indeed come in very handy, as Michael Boyd at the RSC is doing Adrian’s version of Boris Godunov as his final production.

Anyway, at the time I got the bookshop, we were living in Hampstead, and we wanted someone to help with the house and the children, and then these two girls turned up on our doorstep looking for work. So, they came, these two jolly Australian girls, and made cakes for the bookshop and we had a big press launch. In those days we didn’t have the bookcases in the centre of the bookshop, so we had a lot more room to move around. Michael Palin and Terry Jones came and opened the bookshop for me because Ripping Yarns, of course, was the name of their television series. They both read aloud from Biggles and Just William books, and I think I made a lot of money that night… and not much since [laughs].

We specialise in children’s books but, because of where we are as a neighbourhood shop, I can’t afford to do just that. If we were somewhere else then perhaps, but that’s not going to work here. So, I have a lot of other fiction, history, politics, music and poetry - a much bigger poetry selection than you usually find, mainly because I’m interested in it myself.

We have the books, and the bookshop itself, because we like having them. We don’t make much money – in fact we usually just about break even - and the people who work with me don’t make much money either. However, we all love books and that’s the main thing, and we have quite a jolly time.

I also have a dog, Daisy - a very old golden retriever who comes and sits in the shop quite often. She’s quite used to books because they’re all over our house. The only trouble is that, sometimes, she does lie down in the middle of the shop in customers’ way. She’s not dangerous, just a little hopeless [laughs]. But she is rather beautiful."

How many books does the shop have?

"In the shop I would think we have at least 10,000 books. Online we have 6000, and we’re adding to it all the time.  In our storage spaces we have at least another few thousand and, at my house, we have many many more. In the days when we began, of course, we didn’t have computers."

How did you manage to keep track of everything?

"Well, we didn’t have as many books. And then we had Hugh working here [Jen: Hugh now works in publishing and is the editor of 'Weird Things...'] who persuaded me to buy a very primitive Apple computer and set up the system. We all had to learn how to use it when he left, and it took us a while."

What about the people who have worked here in the past?

"A lot of actresses have worked for me, as well as musicians, writers and artists. People in the arts, really. There was our popstar, Daniel, who was in a little band which is now a very big band, Yuck. They’re doing frightfully well. He still stops by for a cup of tea. He’s writing poetry now, and I’ve given him some poetry books to read. He was very charming in the shop."

What’s the best book you’ve had in the shop?

"We had an amazing eighteenth century cookery book once. But I don’t really know; we’ve sold so many books over the years – you forget them all. We have sold books for over a thousand pounds, but not too often. We've sold collections of books to a Japanese children’s library, and at the moment we do have that wonderful eighteenth century collection of etiquette."

Who’s your favourite author and illustrator?

"I have to admit I read a lot of detective novels, especially Penguin green crime. Sylvia Townsend Warner is also somebody I’m quite keen on, and I read a lot of poetry, too. I love Walter Crane and James Thurber, and Ralph Steadman is not only my favourite living illustrator but a dear friend as well. He’s been very supportive of the bookshop. We have quite a lot of interesting people who’ve come in to the shop over the years. Sylvester McCoy, who was Dr. Who, and Peter O’Toole came in when he was writing his autobiography, looking for Boy’s Own magazines and some old annuals that he had as a boy. We often have John Hegley stopping by to do readings, and Michael Rosen, who both love the shop, though events are a little difficult for us because of the lack of space."

What’s the strangest thing a customer has said in the past?

"Well, we have had several stalkers in the past. One was obsessed with gardening, and he’d come in and speak to Zoe, a very beautiful girl who used to work here who had never really been to the country and knew nothing about gardening. Anyway, he used to come in here repeatedly and ask her lots of questions about tractors, even though he knew she didn’t know the answers."

What about the future?

"There’s a lot of local love for the bookshop. We especially appreciate the parents who bring their children in regularly, encouraging them to read. To be realistic, in the future as well as our normal stock, we’re going to have to start focusing on more valuable books, music papers, comics and ephemera. Things that you’re never going to be able to get on Kindle. But it’s so difficult to say that we won’t stock one thing or the other when we would like to stock everything. But I will say that, if you want to keep your local bookshops, you cannot take them for granted and assume that they will always be there. Especially not now. So, please go in, look around and have a chat. You may very well be tempted."


Opening times:
Tuesday-Friday 12-5pm Saturday 10-5pm Sunday 11-4pm. 
Closed Mondays. 
The bookshop is opposite Highgate tube station. Free parking on Archway Road for one hour outside.
For all enquires email 
Online inventory can be found here


More bookshop stories from other places to come!


  1. Oh,sigh! I could spend weeks in here Jen! (Would you like a bookshop cat? I could dust the books and make sure inquisitive mice never put a paw over the doorstep.)

  2. I LOVE this! I hold Ripping Yarns responsible for my obsession with second-hand bookshops & love of children's books. I remember the William in the window, would pass him twice a day to and from school...

    Must pop in and say hello soon.

  3. Your shop looks so lovely, Jen! I'm determined to come and have a nose one day; I adore independent bookshops. x

  4. Hadn't heard that one about Zoe and the tractors, very funny.

    John, Bill Bailey doesn't work there, but I've always suspected Black Books is based on a medley of North London bookstones including Ripping Yarns (for the mess and the ragtag boxes outside) and Fisher and Sperr (no longer there, owned by a man who didn't like letting anyone in the shop and would make you tell him what you wanted before he would even take the latch off - then he would only put the lights on in the one room you had indicated interest in. Also Bernard Stone's shop in Lambs Conduit Street, which was notable for Bernard's rudeness to customers he didn't like.)

  5. I used to work here too! Back in 2004/5. I doubt Celia would remember me, but I'm the girl who used to buy all the Biggles books. I had an amazing time working here. I really hope to come back and visit again soon. Lovely to read your article, brought back fond memories.

  6. Hi, I'm currently reading "Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops" and it is ridiculous :))