Bookshopping in Darlington


I guess I'm really missing bookshops! Here's a short piece I just wrote about bookshopping in Darlington and Dressers Department Store when I was a kid...

1985 – Paper

I think Mam must have enjoyed shopping in Dressers, the Edwardian department store on High Row in Darlington. My obsession with reading – always there, but reaching new heights in my mid-teens - brought her to their book department on the first floor. It was a very calming place, with white shelves, creaking wooden floorboards and tall windows that looked out on the very middle of town: the clock, the market hall, and the main street, which had once been a portion of the A1, the busiest road in all the country, running through the middle of town.
Dressers had a lovely smell. I think it was paper. Fresh newspaper and magazines, warm with ink. Or it was the art supplies and those wide shelves containing every size, type and quality of paper. Crepe paper, cartridge paper, watercolour paper, pastel paper, wrapping paper, tissue paper. Everything smelled delicious and fresh. In fact, all the art supplies seemed almost edible: all the coloured inks from deepest, darkest blue to apple green and gold and silver. Was it just imagination, or did the squashy tubes of oil colours and gouache smell wonderful as well? The smudgy brilliance of the ranks of oil pastels exuded an exotic scent as you breezed into the shop and took the creaking staircases upstairs, past Fancy Goods and Fine China…
I can picture Mam shopping in the Books Department in the middle of the 1980s. I have a copy of a collection of stories by Paul Bowles that she bought me from there. What made her pick out Paul Bowles for me? It seems a strange choice: neither of us would have heard of him. I remember loving that book so much – with its dense atmosphere of heady decadence in faraway places. It was a Picador modern classic, and Dressers always had a fine display of white-spined Picadors. Maybe she browsed those, one after the next, choosing at random, reading the backs, studying the pictures on the front?
I have a gigantic, incredibly heavy, richly illustrated History of World Art. Something else she would have found in Dressers and gifted to me at Christmas, late in my teens. A book I still browse through to this day, and you can still somehow catch a whiff of that shop from the paper.
The thing about Dressers, for me, was that it was about moving onto grown-up books – away from the kids’ books of WH Smiths. The perfect time for me, looking back, would be when I was visiting both places’ upstairs to spend my carefully-hoarded pocket money – the warm orange glow of the rowdy upstairs of Smiths and the more austere, old-fashioned, wonderfully-scented upper storey of Dressers. When I was reading both Dr Who and DH Lawrence.
It was a time when I was only just finding out about the wider world of books. I was finding my feet. And I recall that Mam loved to buy me books, just as she had, back when I was learning to read: when she was teaching me from the Ladybird Books, the Well-Loved Tales series, back in Peterlee, when I was two, and we were living in a little box house in a landscape of little boxes. She was still picking out books for me, but I was growing up and developing my own tastes, and soon she would be losing track of what I liked and didn’t; what I was checking out and what I wasn’t. She would soon find it harder to know what I’d enjoy and what was any good.
I suppose it’s the old tale of developing your own tastes and exploring on your own. For me it just happened in the medium of reading.
There was a biography of David Bowie I bought from Dressers – an expensive hardback I splashed out on after Bowie played Live Aid and I was enthralled. I remember reading this book, hardly able to breathe because it was so exciting. It was transgressive and shocking to fifteen year old me: all this talk of sexuality and rock and art. It was wonderful. I couldn’t believe I owned a book of my own that had such wonderfully rude words scattered throughout…
I’d always known that the books I chose, and which were chosen for me by loved ones, could be relied upon to transport me. I loved those familiar book departments even more because they were the launching sites – calm, quiet and smelling of polish and paper: they could lead me anywhere, and they did.