From Johnny Cash to Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud- Laurie Hardman has sold books to them all, as he tells Alan Gardiner
Laurie explains that Charles Broadhurst first opened the shop in 1920. ‘We’re the oldest independent bookshop in the north of England, and one of the oldest in the country. Originally he just had the front part of the building downstairs. Above were flats and offices, one of them occupied for many years by Madam Gladys, a clairvoyant who gave crystal ball readings’. Broadhurst went on to have a distinguished career in the booktrade, becoming President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. The shop gradually took over the whole building, and now occupies four floors, with new books on the ground floor, an extensive children’s department, eight rooms filled with secondhand books and two large rare book rooms. Laurie who estimates the shop has around 200,000 books, worked for Charles Broadhurst for 20 years took over the business when he died in 1987.
It’s not difficult to imagine how how Broadhursts must have looked in its early days, as much about the shop is redolent of an earlier era. There’s a coal fire downstairs, and customer’s purchases are wrapped in brown paper and tied neatly with string. Laurie stresses that the shop’s image is not artificial or contrived: ‘Things like that are intrinsic to the shop’s character……it that we’ve seen no reason to change, partly because customers like them. “We’ve had customers who were brought here in the 1930s by their parents, and they bring their children in, then when these children grow up they do the same.’
As one of the north’s leading bookshops Broadhursts has welcomed many notable visitors over the years. ‘Charles Broadhurst liked inviting authors to the shop’, explains Laurie, ‘and people like Rudyard Kipling and H.G.Wells came here.’ The quality and breadth of the shop’s stock make Broadhursts a bibliophile’s heaven, something that has attracted numerous famous customers. ‘Ralph Richardson had friends in Southport and came in quite regularly. He was a thoroughly nice man. One time he was here his autobiography had just been published and two elderly ladies asked if he’d sign a copy they were just about to buy. He told them, “I’ll sign one for each of you”, then turned to me and said “Put them on my account!” John Gielgud was another customer, he could seem more aloof, but he was a very shy man and beneath the reserved carapace he had an appealing dry sense of humour.’
Laurie also recalls the day Johnny Cash came to town and called into the shop. ‘He walked in and of course I knew immediately who he was. He asked if we had anything on the native American Indians, and by chance we had a first edition of a set of books, he said he’d been after for years…. After that we’d always let him know of anything that might interest him, and if he wanted the books we’d send them over to the States.’
The comedians Hinge and Bracket…., who were appearing locally, became so absorbed as they browsed the shelves on the top floor they were accidentally locked in when the shop closed. ‘They climbed out through a skylight and shouted down to the people in the street, asking them to call the police because they were on stage in half an hour!’
Laurie says that as a child he loved books and, apart from a rather unhappy 12 months with the Midland Bank, he’s always worked in the book trade. He has his own large library of books at home but no longer considers himself a serious collector. ‘One of the first pieces of advice Charles Broadhurst gave me was, “Stop collecting books immediately, because you’ll want to keep the best stuff for yourself”. The way I look at it is, unless it’s something that’s astoundingly rare I’ll see it again sooner or later, and if it was something I really wanted I’d know where to get it.’
It’s clear however that as a seasoned buyer of rare and secondhand books Laurie still relishes the thrill of the hunt. ‘It’s like Christmas every day – you never know what you’re going to come across. Probably the most valuable single book that I’ve handled since owning the business was a third folio of Shakespeare’s plays, dating from 1664. It was in absolutely immaculate condition – a genuine thing of beauty. I don’t often regret selling a book, but I was sorry to sell that’.
He explains that age is not always an indicator of a book’s value. ‘ A first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, only published about ten years ago, is worth in excess of twenty thousand pounds, whereas there are shedloads of 17th century books which will only fetch around £10 each’.
An interesting human story lies behind one of his most memorable…. finds. ‘An elderly man used to come into the shop as regular as clockwork on Saturday afternoons. He never spoke much but would browse in the shop while his wife went shopping. Then we stopped seeing him and assumed – correctly as it turned out – that sadly he must have died .Eventually about six months later someone phoned and said they had a house full of books to sell and if we didn’t want them they’d be going to the tip. I went to this little terraced house absolutely stuffed with books in Wigan and met this chap who said his parents had both recently passed away. I happened to see a photograph on the mantelpiece and realised that the man who died was our old customer. It turned out he was a world authority on James Joyce, who’d written books himself and had a magnificent collection of manuscripts and books by Joyce scholars from around the world. We bought the books and sold them on the Joyce archive in the United States.’
Despite the rise of e-books and the growth of online selling, Laurie is optimistic about the future. ‘The internet has been positive for us in many ways. We sell online ourselves and often find buyers for books that we might struggle to sell in the shop. (And it’s been a useful reality check to a lot of booksellers, because it helps you determine the true scarcity of a book. In the past if you only saw a book two or three times a year you might assume it was rare, but now you can look online and if there are sixty copies up for sale you’ll know it’s not as scarce as you thought.) The kindle’s certainly having an impact on paperbacks , but several people have said to me they’ll read a book on kindle and if they really liked it they’ll buy a hard copy as well. And it’s not having any effect on children’s books or on ‘fine’ books that are valued as physical objects.’
Diversification is obviously crucial to Broadbent’s success. They sell secondhand and rare books online and in the shop and at bookfairs around the country. ‘We’ve got very strong links with local schools. I’ve always had a very strong belief in encouraging children to read, and school parties come in for tours of the shop and story readings. At Christmas they can write letters to Santa Claus and post letters ‘in a box by the fire’. Regular author events have included visits by such authors as Terry Prachett and Michael Palin. This summer Broadhursts will have a large marquee at the Southport Flower Show. Future plans include a new North West book festival.
As I leave the shop a party of young schoolchildren is on the pavement outside, waiting to come in. For many of them Broadhursts must seem a magical place – an enchanting maze of narrow staircases and irregularly-sized, book –filled rooms – and their visit will surely help …install a love of books which ensures they’ll be returning for many years to come.