Sunday, September 18, 2005

Moon's bookshop

Published in the Idler. 2003

Michael Moon’s Antiquarian Booksellers & Publishers

19 Lowther Street, Whitehaven, Cumbria

Few visitors to Cumbria and the Lake District ever make it as far as the isolated west coast town of Whitehaven. In fact, few residents of Cumbria go there, in spite of the fact that it’s one of the biggest towns in the county. This is a shame. Whitehaven is full of character, and, within its unique grid-pattern 17th century streets (designed by Christopher Wren and said - by locals at least - to be the inspiration for New York), it contains one of the best bookshops in the country, Michael Moon’s gloriously eccentric ‘Literary Emporium’.

It isn’t just the fact that there are loads of books that makes Moon’s so appealing. It’s the atmosphere that really sets it apart. An ambience of appealing shabbiness, comfortable yet intellectually charged, immediately grabs you. The room you first enter, leading in from the attractive but unremarkable shop front, is average sized and rectangular. The only physically unusual feature of the room is a large desk at the far end to the door, laden with books and scattered papers, but it quickly becomes clear that Moon’s is a browser’s paradise. It’s in the air.

Further exploration reveals that the shop is huge. At the back of the first room, there’s a flight of stairs leading past a wall of splendid first editions (in an only slightly dusty glass cabinet) up to a large room, crammed with shelves. Doors lead off in two directions from this room, both directions leading up and down rickety stairs and round corners to a bewildering number of other rooms, all full to bursting. It’s comes as no surprise to learn that there’s almost a mile of shelves, and that nobody has any idea how many books there are on them.

Close inspection reveals that many of the books are fascinating. All thoughts of quickly finding a specific volume have to be banished, however, because, aside from a few divisions into fiction, biography, history etc, there is no filing system, alphabetical or otherwise. The owner Michael Moon is proud to say that he hasn’t fallen victim to “the tidying disease.” The only way to approach the healthy chaos in his shop is with an involved, prolonged browse. You’ll probably never find the book you originally intended to buy, but you’re guaranteed to walk out with at least three more you probably didn’t even know existed.


Michael Moon’s personality asserts itself in more than just the determined lack of order. The esoteric collection of books clearly follow his interests and areas of expertise and the intriguing labyrinthine building might just as well be an extension of his own cavernous mind. When I visited the shop with my fellow Idler Dan Kieran he charmed us with stories of Whitehaven’s often hilarious, often tragic swashbuckling industrial history, as well as with his own career in publishing and bookselling. He seemed to take as much delight in his failures (like running a huge print run for a book that sold less than 10 copies), as his triumphs (maintaining one of the finest bookshops in the country for more than 30 years).

We ended up talking to him for almost two hours, meaning that had to Mr Moon keep the shop open a good hour after closing time. And he didn’t even realise that we had any kind of professional interest, until Dan found an 18th Century edition of Johnson’s Idler, just before we left and blew the gaff (we were there to research a follow up book to Crap Towns – and no Whitehaven definitely isn’t crap). I’m now more than happy to repay his benevolent eloquence by recommending that all Idler readers visit his shop.


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