Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Now, it’s the internet; then it was Miff Smiff - I’ve had the best of both worlds

On my mental map of Wimbledon, the London suburb where I lived between the ages of six and eighteen, all the places where I could buy records, books and magazines loom large.

First, there was Lloyds on the High Street, a lovely, fusty. old second-hand bookshop presided over by a bald, tweed-jacketed, pipe-sucking, Pickwickian proprietor. I spent hours in there from the age of eleven or so (no, I wasn’t a particularly precocious reader – I just loved the atmosphere and the smell). Obviously, I rarely had the money to buy anything, but, after peering at me suspiciously over the top of his bifocals on my first few visits, the owner evidently recognised in me the sort of harmless, budding bibliophile he had no doubt once been himself, and went about his business (which seemed to consist entirely of reading books, as you might expect).  The only time he smiled at me was when I bought a two-volume hardback edition of Bleak House. I loved the coloured illustrations, but the book itself proved impenetrable (I tried to get through it again about five years ago, and failed yet again.)

Across the High Street, a bit further down, there was a small electrical appliance shop, with a surprisingly well-stocked record section to the side. I bought James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James and a superb Chess R&B compilation in there. I’ve no idea who chose their stock – but they had great taste.

Opposite stood The Hill Bookshop, run by a fussy, balding little snob in a neat jumper, who used to complain about “the groundlings”. It was all modern and teaky, and I didn’t like the atmosphere much, but the selection was good: here I bought classic children’s books (all of which turned out to be really dull, especially The Coral Island). Down the hill you came to a stationer’s  (Fieldings? Fielders?) with a very decent paperback section in the back: here I bought my first Orwell and Evelyn Waugh paperbacks. 

Across the road was a shop that sold musical instruments on the ground floor, and records upstairs. There were no less than four glass-fronted listening booths, complete with armchairs. The place was the domain of a burly, bald-headed man in a pinstriped suit who bore an uncanny resemblance to Laurie West, ITV’s old weatherman (was everyone bald back then?). I bought quite a lot of stuff there, including Revolver and a 45 of Duane Eddy’s “Ramrod” (I’d spent years asking the manager for obscure Rock ‘n’ Roll singles, which he never had, but when I asked for this ancient instrumental he made me promise to buy it if was in stock. Astonishingly, it was. Still got it. Still love it.)

Just down the road was Wimbledon Library, which was, great, especially the cool, dark, imposing adults’ section, from which I wasn’t allowed to borrow any books, but where my presence was tolerated. (A pox on any council which closes down libraries rather than fire the odd Racial Awareness blister, Climate Change wanker, or Lesbian Outreach waster). 

Back across the road, the department store, Ely’s, had a book section – again, pretty good. I began my lifelong relationship with Colin Wilson there. 

Down a side street (Alexandra Road?), there was Miff Smiff, a fabulously dirty and chaotic little dump selling all kinds of second-hand crap (the owners may  have been rag and bone men), which featured a few cardboard cartons stuffed with second-hand singles, selling for 2/6d each. I still have at least 10 records bought there, including some early Elvis.Loved that place.

Two other record shops came and went – one at the top of Hartfield Road, which sprang up during the Summer of Love (John Wesley Harding), and another one down Wimbledon Broadway, which never figured out what it was for. Even back then, when sales were rocketing, music stores evidently found it hard to make a living.

As for magazines, journals and periodicals, there was a tiny newsagent’s in Worple Road, opposite Ely’s, which stocked Rolling Stone, and an even smaller one in Raynes Park which – for some odd reason – carried the fabulously obscure Famous Monsters of Filmland and the upmarket fanzine, Castle of Frankenstein. (For DC comics – Superman, Flash, Green Lantern and the like, you had to cycle all the way to Tooting. Wimbledon was rubbish for comics.)

I apologise for coming over all nostalgic, but this topic occurred to me the other day while I was reading the American Spectator online. I remember the sheer joy of finding this journal on sale in a Chiswick newsagent back in the Nineties. Now I can access it every day at the click of a mouse. While that’s pleasing, and jolly convenient, it isn’t the least bit exciting. (In the same way, being able to find obscure records on Spotify or YouTube is a treat, but, somehow, doesn’t set the pulse racing.)

I’m glad to have grown up in a hard copy era, when finding stuff you liked was largely a matter of what you came across in the real world, and where it took a bit of effort and perseverance – and just as happy to be entering late middle age  at a time when it’s all just there! It still feels like a real treat to be able log on to Amazon, stick in key-words, and get ordering. 

But I’m not sure I’d have preferred growing up in a period when everything you could possibly want is just about instantly available. I’m all for the free market system, but when it comes to culture (high and low) I suspect that a limitless, unfiltered profusion of choice might lead to a form of cultural autism, i.e. you deal with the chaos by confining yourself to a very narrow range of music and literature. I’d also miss being able to remember that precise place and time when I happened unexpectedly upon some treasure of a book or record. 

The good news, as far as any youngster currently growing up in Wimbledon is concerned, is that the place seems to be positively stuffedwith bookshops as well as at least two record stores. And the library’s still there. Always was a civilised place. I hope those shops aren’t just being frequented by old farts like me, and that kids are getting as much pleasure and excitement out of them as I did.

Mind you, I bet it’s still rubbish for comics. And a good thing, too!


  1. The book shop may have been Fielders and was the name of the tiny record shop at the top of Hartfield rd.,Alnats,run by two brothers in matching white,wooly,.polo sweaters.On second thoughts they may not have been brothers.
    Monday, June 20, 2011 - 06:39 AM

  2. Fielder’s does sound right. No idea about Alnats or the polo-sweatered staff. I do remember assuring a friend that they had Buffalo Springfield albums in stock, which excited him greatly, only for him to discover that I had confused them with Jefferson Airplane. The contempt in his eyes!
    Tuesday, June 21, 2011 - 11:13 AM

  3. A brief summary of Miff Smith's life (your readers will be dying to know) goes something like this:
    Not a woolly sweater wearer he, but a rumpled brown pin-striped suit- a 'spiv' who prospered in the McMillan "you've never had it so good" years. After a long absence, he resurfaced during the Thatcher years opposite Sout Wimbledon Tube Station trading under the same name, flogging all the discarded vinyl records.
    Alnats had long gone by the time you came to buy "For What It's Worth" - a track that I could never find on a single.
    Wednesday, June 22, 2011 - 03:06 PM

  4. Oh dear. The Jefferson/Buffalo confusion scenario has an awfully familiar ring to it. I remember a shop just before the climb up the hill, I think, on the opposite side to Wimbledon Girls High School which had booths where you could listen in stereo. In theory, that is, because after the second time you didn't buy anything you got ignored. I heard the guitar playing of Eric Clapton there for the first time (the Bluesbreakers' "Beano" album, when EC was still good).
    Wednesday, June 22, 2011 - 10:14 PM

  5. Fielders is still there. They sold books on the first floor until a few years ago, when they converted it into a flat. They no longer sell general stationery, on the ground floor, but they specialise in artists' materials, and good for them.

    I am told by the longer-term residents of Wimbledon that Lloyds operated two businesses. The second hand books business on the ground floor alluded to by Scott and, on the first floor, a world class second hand sheet music business.

    Don't all rush round to your publishers with the idea for a book based on the first floor commerce of SW19.
    Thursday, June 23, 2011 - 10:48 AM