Bookshop Memories: Willie Rushton

Inspired by this article.

Many years ago I worked in London doing a crappy little admin job. I spent my lunch hours scouring the side streets for interesting shops. On one of my walks I came across a tiny little place with piles of books and a wooden chair in the window. It was very narrow inside with a row of rickety wooden shelves running down the middle of the shop from the front to the back. They were overloaded with treasures, looking fit to buckle under their weight. The shelves were held up by yet more piles of books on the floor. The man at the counter sat in an armchair reading a tiny book with a tattered, black leather cover. A young woman sat on the floor sorting through old postcards, putting them in baskets. At first glance there were two other customers, both men in suits, but as I reached the end of the shelves to go down the other aisle, I noticed another male customer right down the end, silhouetted against the window.

As I mooched along, I came across a book that I’d read with my dad loads of times but hadn’t seen for years – Ken Dodd’s Butty Book. I stood there chuckling at the silly jokes while the two businessmen tutted at me. Then, from right behind my head I heard “Don’t mind them, just keep laughing. Bloody stiffs.” Anyone who’s ever heard Willie Rushton speak knows how deep and rumbly his voice is and how well it carries. He made me jump but I recognised him before I even turned round. The two businessmen scuttled away and I was left wordless. I tried to laugh but think I may have wheezed instead. I did manage to say goodbye when I left and he returned the gesture with a smile. The first person I told when I got back to the office said “Who’s Willie Rushton?”

I know he wasn’t the most famous person in the world but I’d grown up listening to him on the radio and watching him on the telly. He was clever and funny, irreverent and marvellous. I wish I had been able to speak, to think of something amusing and memorable to entertain him with or perhaps had the wherewithal to treat him to a round or two of Mornington Crescent.

Do you have any bookshop memories or memorable encounters to share?

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All sorts of things can happen when you’re open to new ideas and playing around with things

The title of this post is a quote from Stephanie Kwolek, the chemist who invented Kevlar, who died this week at the age of 90. It’s good advice for just about anyone. Being prepared to take risks, to get things wrong, to experiment, to keep an open mind, to throw away work and start again – these are useful lessons for writers. This is what Stephanie had to say about how her interests developed when she was young.

“I thought I would be a teacher. I spent a lot of time holding classes and teaching kids in my neighborhood. I also remember writing poetry and drawing. My father and I would go exploring in the woods, collecting flowers and leaves. I would press them in a notebook. We studied snakes and other things, too, as we walked through the woods.

“Later I got interested in science. I was either going to be a chemist or a medical doctor. When I got out of college, however, I didn’t have enough money to go to medical school.

“So I went to work as a chemist. The problem was that I was so interested in chemistry and research that I totally forgot about medicine.”

I expect there are a lot of families out there who are grateful for that. RIP, wonderful lady.