The name ‘Candle Lane’ harkens back to the days before a certain Princess Victoria visited Shrewsbury, upgrading the street where candles had been made to the more upmarket 'Princess Street'. Next year will be the fortieth anniversary of Candle Lane Books. Its proprietor, John Thornhill, was a collector long before he opened the shop. Yesterday morning I met John with his son and business partner, Edward. Over coffee in Renaissance, they outlined the shop’s history, their lives as hands-on farmers, their years as collectors and their mutual love of books.
For John’s son, Edward, the family’s book business was always a factor in his young life. At an early age he learned pricing and handling from his dad. Helping out in the shop was a regular occurence. A Shrewsbury schoolboy, Edward was one of a handful who left before their ‘A’ levels - an unusual step, but one that certainly paid off. ‘I always knew I’d be going into the family business,’ Edward said. ‘I also worked on the farm, and I still do. I did some travelling, visiting almost forty countries, and I worked in the shop.’
For John himself, a long life of collecting began aged eight with ‘The Book of the Farm’. Bought for him by his mother to encourage his love of reading, she could have had no idea that she’d started something that would be part of family life until the present day. ‘It’s a good job we’re farmers too,’ said Edward, ‘otherwise we wouldn’t have the space to keep all Dad’s books.’ ‘We always say no collection too large, no parcel too small,’ added John. ‘Once we purchased 10,000 books in one day. The staff on the farm became good at handling books.’
Amongst John’s own personal library is the twelve volume classic, Eyton’s History of Shropshire. Only three hundred copies of this book were ever printed, as well as three large paper copies – and at one time John owned all three of them [he now owns only one].
Another treasure is George Garrard’s ‘History of British Livestock’. Edward said it was the only book of which he’d been unable to find another copy on the open market, which, given his contacts, makes it most likely the only of its kind still in existence. The problem for Garrard’s, he explained, was its fifty-two fantastic hand-colour plates, which over the years had leant themselves to being extracted from the book, which is why a complete copy is now so very rare. ‘When my father acquired the book,’ Edward said, ‘an article and photograph went up in the Farmers’ Weekly. A lady phoned in wanting to buy it for her husband. We named a ridiculous sum, saying even if the offering price was that, we wouldn’t part with it. The lady offered more - but we still said no.’
Candle Lane Books started out as an offshoot of John’s massive collection. ‘I’d bought so many books,’ he said, ‘that I thought I’d better start a shop’. The shop in question was an old butcher’s shop half the size of the current premises. John filled it with books from country house sales - whole tea-chests full at a time. A book binder, Mr James, was employed, coming in Saturdays, taking a couple of boxes of books and returning with them bound the following week. For thirty-two years he worked for Candle Lane Books. Even in his eighties he was still coming in. ‘It was with his help that we saved many of our books,’ John said. ‘The Parish Registers for example – by buying and binding them they were preserved. We have registers for most of Shropshire in the shop. They’re of particular use to people looking up their family history.’
It didn’t take long for the shop to be in need of expansion. The family bought the shop next door and went up three floors. Now even the furthest corner of Candle Lane Books is stuffed to the gunwales with good reads. ‘We’ll buy anything we think will sell,’ Edward said. ‘I tend to focus more on modern publications and my father on the older books. But Candle Lane Books has no specialism, except of course for local books. We’ll take on any topic, buying what we can sell.’
Over the years, I’ve spent a prince’s ransom on local publications in Candle Lane Books. I’ve also bought my share of other books that have caught my eye, including a first edition Graham Greene, a signed Malcolm Saville and several books by one of my favourite authors, A.G. Bradley. Candle Lane Books always has something that I want – and more often than not that something is in the window, pleading to be taken away.
John, Edward and Maureen [who’s been employed in the shop for the last twenty-six years, having worked previously at the family’s reproduction furniture shop in what is now Poppy’s tea room] have window-dressing down to a fine art. They know that showing the right thing, whether or not it’s valuable, will bring in the customers. They have their regulars, those who come at certain times on certain days of the week. Many of these aren’t looking for anything other than a good read, but there are others on the lookout for certain books, who are prepared to pay for them, and to pay well.
Candle Lane Books has a ‘Wants List’. If you’re looking for something special, then John and Edward will look for it too. And once a book’s on the list it doesn’t come off, even years later, if it hasn’t yet been found.
Nowadays John and Edward mostly buy from private collections. Very often people will come in to them with something they wish to sell. ‘We never buy from auctions for resale in the shop,’ said Edward, ‘but we sometimes do for ourselves. We keep an eye on the auction houses, and if there’s something that we really want going at the right price then we’ll buy.’
‘How do you decide which books are for the shop, and which for your private library?’ I wanted to know. Edward and his father looked at each other. Plainly this wasn’t a simple question to answer. If a book was rare, or it had a certain something about it, a uniqueness of some sort, they would keep it, they said. Once they bought seventy tea-chests full of books from a known collector in Japan, mostly books dated before the 1850s. Every single book was good enough to buy in its own right. They kept three hundred, but sold the rest in the shop. It didn’t take long for the word to get round, then they had dealers beating a path to their door.
Another book, too, is worthy of a mention. ‘Shall I tell her about the…’ said Edward. The word hung in the air. Again the two of them looked at each other. It was the Vaughan book they were talking about – a book that brings new meaning to the word unique. Starting with Adam and Eve, the writer of this book had traced his family’s history from the beginning of humankind to his own times in the 19th century. Every word of this massive tome has been written by hand. To begin with the hand was steady. By the end of the book, though, it was shaky and plainly old.
As soon as I heard about this book, I wanted to see it. For twenty-six years I’d lived out at Worthen in a farmhouse bought from the Vaughan family, for whom it had been home for over a century. They’d even left their names etched in its window glass and graffitied in the soft plaster between its old beams. ‘Doris Vaughan – a goodish girl’, ‘Maureen Vaughan – a devil’, and so on and so forth.
Kindly, John and Edward agreed to bring in the book for me to see from John’s library, where it’s one of his treasures. We arranged to meet next day, ie. today. Then I started asking John about his life as a publisher, which we hadn’t yet talked about. Three books came out under the imprint ‘John Thornhill, Candle Lane Books’ - Georgina Jackson’s ‘Shropshire Word-Book’, Garbett’s ‘History of Wem’ and ‘Shrewsbury Street Names’. John would have published Charlotte Burne’s ‘Shropshire Folk-Lore’ too, but his printer in Yorkshire went out of business and it never happened, which John regrets.
It’s hard to imagine how John has found time for it all, especially with a full-time other business to run as well. His love of books may have been inherited from his mother, but from his father he inherited the family farm. ‘My farm is my life,’ said John. ‘This other thing, books, well it just developed. There was one time, you know, when I worked for three whole years on the farm without coming into town once.’
John left school at thirteen. He broke up for the Christmas holidays, had his thirteenth birthday and never went back. That was a long time ago now. Extraordinary changes in farming have happened in John’s lifetime. He farmed through the Depression and the Second World War, and now his son, Edward, runs the farm. ‘We’re hands-on farmers,’ Edward said. ‘Everything we have in town, this shop and other properties we own, come from the farm.’
The Thornhills have 260 acres and a herd of Pedigree Herefords. Theirs is an old family farm with a big old manor house and its own church. John remembers a time when all their staff lived on the farm, but things are different now. A few years ago when two of their workers - John Lewis and Michael Lewis [not related] - retired, the two of them clocked up between them a massive one hundred and five years. For a while Edward was left working the farm alone, but now - eighty-six interviews later – he’s found a replacement in Benjamin Fleming, whom he describes as ‘an old head on young shoulders’, exactly the right person for the job.
‘They’re a wonderful family to work for,’ Maureen told me later, when John and Edward weren’t around. I’ve got the best job in town. I suppose that one day I’ll retire, but definitely not yet.’
The key, Edward told me, was that they as a family had always got on with each other. ‘In the shop as well,’ he said. ‘There’s been Margaret, my mum, Jane, my sister, Dad and me, all involved in the family businesses.’ I asked John what stood out most in his long life. I expected the answer to be a book, but I was wrong. ‘It’s the people who’ve worked for us,’ John replied. ‘We’ve had wonderful staff, right down through the years. That’s what stands out. Without them, we couldn’t have done what we’ve done.’
I wrote that yesterday. This morning I went back to Candle Lane Books to see John’s Vaughan Family History. The shop had only just opened, lights on and bolts drawn back but no time yet for its table of discount books to go outside. [‘When we close for lunch we leave it out,’ Edward said. ‘Shrewsbury people can be trusted to pay for their books. It’s nothing to come back and find ten or fifty pence pieces wedged under the door.’]
The Vaughan Family History is the other end of the spectrum to a fifty pence book. It’s folio sized, several inches thick, with craftsman-like penmanship and beautifully bound in leather. Here, see what I mean. This is the page that links the Vaughans to Brutus, and King Locrinus of Sabrina-spirit-of-the-River-Severn fame. My jaw dropped when Edward opened it up. I can’t imagine what it’s like to own such a thing, let alone to have written it. What a treasure it must have been to its family in its day.
I left Candle Lane Books in a bit of a blur, though not without spotting something in the window [well, several somethings actually] and coming back. Then I headed off across the Square, where the stage was going up for carols tonight. The first of the new shop fronts for Princess House jutted out into the space where, other years, the crowd would have stood. You’d have thought the least the Princess House people could have done was make their shop fronts blend in with the colours of the Square’s stone flagstones and the Old Market Hall. But oh no. Had they received planning permission for that clash of colours, I wondered. But that’s another subject. I mustn’t digress.
I went into Starbuck’s for a coffee, paper and cinnamon bun and found it half-empty for a change. The girl sitting opposite me said she’d got to get home to Montgomery before bad weather broke this afternoon. Storms were on the way, she said. We talked about Montgomery. I’d never met her before, but Shrewsbury’s a town where even strangers will talk to each other.
The girl left, gathering up her bags. I finished my coffee and left too, carrying my brown-paper Candle Lane parcel. Only eleven o’clock. A good start to the day.