How to Find Love in a Book Shop

How to Find Love in a Book Shop

Veronica Henry


February 1983

He would never have believed it if you’d told him a year ago. That he’d be standing in an empty shop with a baby in a pram, seriously considering putting in an offer.

The pram had been a stroke of luck. He’d seen an advert for a garden sale in a posh part of North Oxford, and the bargain hunter in him couldn’t stay away. The couple had two very young children but were moving to Paris. The pram was pristine, of the kind the queen might have pushed – or rather, her nanny. The woman had only wanted five pounds for it. Julius was sure it was worth far more, and she was only being kind. But if recent events had taught him one thing it was to accept kindness. With alacrity, before people changed their minds. So he bought it, and scrubbed it out carefully with Milton even though it had seemed very clean already, and bought a fresh mattress and blankets and there he had it: the perfect nest for his precious cargo, until she could walk.

When did babies start to walk? There was no point in asking Debra – his vague, away-with-the-fairies mother, ensconced in her patchouli-soaked basement flat in Westbourne Grove, whose memory of his own childhood was blurry. According to Debra, Julius was reading by the age of two, a legend he didn’t quite believe. Although maybe it was true, because he couldn’t remember a time he couldn’t read. It was like breathing to him. Nevertheless, he couldn’t and didn’t rely on his mother for child-rearing advice. He often thought it was a miracle he had made it through childhood unscathed. She used to leave him alone, in his cot, while she went to the wine bar on the corner in the evenings. ‘What could go wrong?’ she asked him. ‘I only left you for an hour.’ Perhaps that explained his protectiveness towards his own daughter. He found it hard to turn his back on her for even a moment.

He looked around the bare walls again. The smell of damp was inescapable, and damp would be a disaster. The staircase rising to the mezzanine was rotten; so rotten he wasn’t allowed up it. The two bay windows either side of the front door flooded the shop with a pearlescent light, highlighting the golden oak of the floorboards and the ornate plasterwork on the ceiling. The dust made it feel other-worldly: a ghost shop, waiting, waiting for something to happen, a transformation, a renovation, a renaissance.

‘It was a pharmacy, originally,’ said the agent. ‘And then an antique shop. Well, I say antique – you’ve never seen so much rubbish in your life.’

He should get some professional advice, really. A structural survey, a quote from someone for a damp course – yet Julius felt light-headed and his heart was pounding. It was right. He knew it was. The two floors above were ideal for him and the baby to live in. Over the shop.

The book shop.

His search had begun three weeks earlier, when he had decided that he needed to take positive action if he and his daughter were going to have any semblance of normal life together. He had looked at his experience, his potential, his assets, and the practicalities of being a single father, and decided there was really only one option open to him.

He’d gone to the library, put a copy of the Yellow Pages on the table, and next to it a detailed map of the county. He drew a circle around Oxford with a fifteen-mile radius, wondering what it would be like to live in Christmas Common, or Ducklington, or Goosey. Then he worked through all the book shops listed and put a cross through the towns they were in.

He looked at the remaining towns, the ones without a book shop at all. There were half a dozen. He made a list, and then over the next few days visited each one, travelling by a complicated rota of buses. The first three towns had been soulless and dreary, and he had been so discouraged he’d almost given up on his idea, but something about the name Peasebrook pleased him, so he decided to have one last look before relinquishing his fantasy.

Peasebrook was in the middle of the Cotswolds, on the outer perimeter of the circle he had drawn: as far out as he wanted to go. He got off the bus and looked up the high street. It was wide and tree-lined, its pavements flanked with higgledy-piggledy golden buildings. There were antique shops, a traditional butcher with rabbit and pheasant hanging outside and fat sausages in the window, a sprawling coaching inn and a couple of nice cafés and a cheese shop. The Women’s Institute were having a sale outside the town hall: there were trestle tables bearing big cakes oozing jam and trugs of mud-covered vegetables and pots of herbaceous flowers drooping dark purple and yellow blooms.

Peasebrook was buzzing, in a quiet way but with purpose, like bees on a summer afternoon. People stopped in the street and talked to each other. The cafés looked pleasingly full. The tills seemed to jangle: people were shopping with gusto and enthusiasm. There was a very smart restaurant with a bay tree outside the door and an impressive menu in a glass case boasting nouvelle cuisine. There was even a tiny theatre showing The Importance of Being Earnest. Somehow that boded well. Julius loved Oscar Wilde. He’d done one of his dissertations on him: The Influence of Oscar Wilde on W.B. Yeats.

He took the play as an omen, but he carried on scouring the streets, in case his research hadn’t been thorough. He feared turning a corner and finding what he hoped wasn’t there. Now he was here, in Peasebrook, he wanted it to be his home – their home. It was a mystery, though, why there was no book shop in such an appealing place.

After all, a town without a book shop was a town without a heart.

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