With tales of a worldwide trek that ended in Liverpool, let John Maguire take you on a shortcut to literary treasure at Kernaghan Books, in the latest of our series on favourite bookshops.
LIVERPOOL PRESENT DAY
Winter sun splashes off the wet cobblestones of the courtyard. There appears to be a brief respite from the almost biblical rains that have attempted to sink the United Kingdom. The rays of light ricochet haphazardly and illuminate the majestic piece of architecture ahead of me: The Bluecoat, a Grade 1 listed building and the oldest in the centre of Liverpool.
Originally a school founded by Reverend Robert Styth, Rector of Liverpool, and sea-captain Bryan Blundell in 1777, the building became an Arts School in 1907 and has been recognised as an international creative hub ever since.
Yoko Ono notably appeared in 1967 and other cultural dignitaries have visited, including the late Doris Lessing and Michael Nyman.
BACK STORY/FLASHBACK TO TWENTY YEARS AGO
It was to The Bluecoat that I used to venture on a Saturday afternoon, to buy books from the little stall that, sadly, is no longer there. The shop was like the Tardis, it seemed to be bigger on the inside. Here I was introduced to Hubert Selby Jr, Ibsen, Margaret Atwood, Burroughs and Bukowski. I also started a collection of Taschen Art books, drowning my eyes in Barbara Hepworth, Basquiat and Geiger, to name but a few.
Alas, after the refurbishment of the Bluecoat in 2008, I felt that the place had lost something of its rakish charm. The interior of the ground floor was now somewhat surgical. The backyard had had a secret garden feel to it, but now lacked the vagabonds who harassed you. I never used to mind too much. What’s a city without a few eccentrics?
Yet the restaurant upstairs with its battered leather couches, school tables and chairs hinted at the retro Bluecoat.
CUT TO PRESENT DAY
However on this particular day in February, I was refreshingly taken aback by a new bookshop that appeared in the courtyard. Tripping up the steps to Kernaghan Books, I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the door. Immediately, it was like being transported to an old Club, like The Athenaeum, or one you would expect to find Phileas Fogg residing in.
The proprietors – husband and wife team, Bryan and Alwyn Kernaghan – gave a friendly nod, and when prompted by a question they sprang into life. Welcoming like old friends, they answered queries, made recommendations and offered anecdotes. The learned couple serve to help you navigate your way through the sea of literature.
How exactly did this bookshop find its way to Liverpool?
The bookshop’s actual evolution is an epic tale in its own right, as Bryan Kernaghan told me,
A gap year in the 70s, long before the term was contrived, was never intended to lead to opening a bookstore. The offer to work as an ‘Antiquarian Bibliomite’ (old bookseller’s assistant to you and me) just seemed the most quirky of seven offers to a Belfast school-leaver in what must have been a plentiful jobs market.
Periods of travel and working abroad were further punctuated by spells in amongst many rooms of dusty but fast-moving tomes. Only after a few years’ inimitable work in the Himalayas did we come back to the UK wondering what we might do next. Rather than join at the bottom of a larger London company we were persuaded to launch in at the top of our own start-up old and rare book company.
We were invited to open a gallery/bookshop together with artist Tony Klitz and his wife in Southport. It was seen as an experiment which might last six months, possibly two years. Then (so the thinking went) we’d be off again to exotic parts. That lasted over 27 years before we eventually made it to the city of Liverpool, the business following an earlier move of home. So in short, not so much a decision – more a stumbling into it.
I asked, as I often ask book lovers, if you could go back in time and meet a deceased author, who would it be and why?
Not far back in time. Seamus Heaney died too soon, having tried too hard for others. He spanned my adult life in the island of my birth through times of flux. He was a consistent, perceptive and sensitive observer on a global scale, viewing through the intimate soil of Ireland. His Beowulf is stunning. A day’s walk with him on the north coast of Ireland would be epic.
With the monumental increase in fresh technologies such as Kindle, e-books and the like, I wondered how he could foresee the future of the common bookshop and the book industry?
Pared back hopefully from the massive over-production of the last four decades. e-formats hopefully will cause publishers to focus on the real virtues and values of a printed book, incorporating creative elements which genuinely please the new, emerging tactile market.
To be completely honest, I personally would struggle to hand over some of the literary treats in this bookshop. I wondered if there had been a book that had been difficult to part with.
Joyce; Ulysses – 1st edition, Shakespeare and Co, Paris 1922. We had it briefly as part of a Joyce collection which ended up in the right place just before the Joyce market went stratospheric. Would like to have it in my hand now – an unwieldy flimsy paperback, but sheer genius with a turbulent publication back story.
Another copy of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale 1st edition would be nice to see come in. We bought one from a customer who’d found it for 25 pence. He went for a holiday of a lifetime on the proceeds!
I urge book lovers to discover this rainforest of the written world. An oasis of calm in the cosmopolitan city of Liverpool. And the mantra to chant at this temple of Literature is read.think.grow
What I bought:
13 x leather-bound Charles Dickens’ Collected Works
1 x vintage pulp edition of Mildred Pierce by James M Cain
1 x vintage edition of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.