Gerry Corner meets a man who was born to flog books
THERE are days, once in a while, when the stars align. Or maybe you just get lucky.
Laurie Hardman had one of those days when a certain legendary American singer and his entourage opened the door of Broadhurst’s of Southport, an unassuming bookshop away from the limelight of Lord Street.
Hardman was then a mere eighteen years into his Broadhurst’s career, having been reluctantly taken on as the junior (“dusting the books, lighting the fire”) by the eponymous owner.
“Mr B wouldn’t have known who it was if he had fallen over him. But I thought, ‘Christ, that’s Johnny Cash’.”
Cash, fresh from an appearance at Southport Theatre, was an avid collector of all things related to native American culture, and had called in to see if they had anything to add.
By chance, Broadhurst’s had only just acquired a first edition of Letters and Notes on the Manners Customs and Traditions of the North American Indians. Not any old first edition of US author, painter and traveller George Catlin’s acclaimed 1841 book, but one that Cash had longed to own.
“This copy had been extra-illustrated with colour plates, extended to four volumes from the original two, and, from memory, was beautifully bound in full dark green Morocco gilt. He didn’t even ask the price.”
Kismet or not, the odds of such a happy outcome are reduced when you have in the region of 250,000 books under your roof, covering just about any subject you care to conjure, from astronomy to gastronomy.
Rudyard Kiping and HG Wells are among celebrated names to cross the threshold of Broadhursts, an institution in the resort, which began life in 1920, in the small front section of a double-fronted Victorian house, beneath the premises of Madam Gladys, clairvoyant and crystal ball reader.
’You can’t beat the joy of hard-copy books. Touch them, smell them, turn down the pages, throw them at the cat’
Ninety-two years on, books fill all of all four floors, five if you include the attic stretching across the top of the next door property on Market Street. The same grate is still sparked into service on chilly days, and they still wrap every volume purchased with brown paper and string. It’s not an affectation, he insists, “it’s the way we’ve always done it and it’s surprising how much the kids like it”.
Rooms are dedicated to new, rare, second hand, antiquarian and children’s books, with one rather special room requiring customers to be accompanied; a wonderfully ornate space, stuffed with treasures, among them a 1614 first edition of History of the World by English soldier, explorer and poet Sir Walter Raleigh, written while imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Hardman casually mentions that a copy of the New Testament printed in Mainz, Germany, in 1478 was dug out of storage recently because “I thought I’d better do something with it”.
In a couple of weeks, it will be 50 years since that office junior took up a post he appears to have been born for. “I started collecting books when I was VERY young,” says Hardman. After university, he worked at a local bank “to please my father. He thought it would be respectable.” After enduring it for twelve months, he decided: “Sod this, I want to sell books.”
In 1987, on the death of Charles Broadhurst, president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association and founder of the Market Street shop, Hardman took the helm, continuing his old boss’s penchant for inviting authors, like the fastasy novelist Terry Pratchett.
“Terry was a lovely man. He flew into Woodvale (RAF base) with his secretary, got here about three o’clock and signed solidly ’til eight o’clock. They were queueing down the road and round the block.”
Hardman is optimistic for the future of the physical product. Sales of print books have risen as digital sales drop. “I’m no luddite, but there is nothing like the joy of hard copy books. You can touch them, smell them, turn down the pages, throw them at the cat.”
Regular parties of schoolchildren browse enthusiastically and “we try to make the shop as user friendly as possible”. As for that most unreachable demographic, the adolescent male, he is deeply relaxed. “Once the hormones kick in, the interest in books goes out the window, but they come back. I have seen that in the shop.”
Personal service is prioritised in a trade where the customer is king, literally so in the case of former Yugoslavia’s deposed monarch, Peter II.
The king (or rather his Southport-based solicitor) was so taken with the place that in 1955 Broadhurst’s was appointed “purveyor of books to His Majesty”, a warrant that is renewed every year and allows Hardman to claim, wryly, that his books are indeed “By Royal Appointment”.
Business is brisk, both in Market Street and with worldwide online sales. At 71, Hardman has no truck with retirement (“why would I stop doing something I enjoy?”). A new work in progress is the crime fiction room, complete with the chalk outline of a murder victim.
Few leave Broadhursts dissatisfied. Certainly not rock and roll’s First Great Wild Man, Jerry Lee Lewis, who sauntered in off the street one day.
“He said ‘this is a great shop’. Hardman delivers the line in his best Louisiana drawl, then pauses, considers, and corrects himself. “Actually, he said ‘this is a fucking great shop’.”
Broadhursts of Southport Ltd, 5-7 Market St, Southport PR8 1HD. Tel: 01704 532064