Saturday, December 30, 2006

JEFF KWINTNER AND THE VILLAGE BOOKSHOP

By

Paul Roberts for The Powys Society Website

Before the Village Press there was the Village Bookshop, and that is something fewer will have seen. The Village Bookshop opened in Regent Street in May 1973. On the ground floor, as one came in from the street, it seemed the sort of place, a clear and uncluttered shop with a floor and shelves of polished pine, specializing in paperbacks, of which there were number in London at the time. There was always music playing, classical, jazz and what has now come to be known as World Music, but which we then called "folk". This came from the record department upstairs ("nearer the stars and the toilet", as the publicity note put it), which was reached by what I remember as a curved, open staircase, which one climbed until one reached a sort of mezzanine from which the ground floor could be seen through railings.

I only rarely climbed those stairs, but I remember a place well-stocked with records hard to obtain elsewhere, and especially the small independent labels, and I remember too a staff that not only knew the music they were selling, but once persuaded me to buy the cheaper version of a classical piece (I forgot what it was) because it was the better recording.

All of Jeff's staff were knowledgeable people, but they were also a pretty eccentric crew, especially the bald man with the vast red beard who would disconcert customers by suddenly turning to them with a huge false eye clamped between eyebrows and cheek - Popeye redrawn by Robert Crumb, whose "comics" were also on sale - or answered their politely whispered questions as Donald Duck. I wish I'd had the nerve to ask his name, but I was too timid and now the chance has gone.

Jeff served in the shop sometimes too, a slim figure with a head of tight black curls splashed with grey and a voice like cinders.

But it was as one approached the rear of the ground floor that it became apparent why this was one of London's most special bookshops and one, which has fused itself in my mind as kind of ideal. With the stairs leading up to the music department to the right, the visitor faced a short flight of two or three steps down into the lower ground floor. These steps were curved into a concave arc and, as one looked ahead, the rear wall of the shop curved in the opposite direction, so as to create an oval floor between steps and wall. The light was more subdued here and the rear wall was clad in stone, so that one had the feeling of having stepped down into a cave, or part of an ancient building. Set into the walls were shelves of thick pine, some several feet long, others no more than niches, and here one found the Village Press books, rows of titles by and about Powys and Miller as well as other works such as The London Adventure, or The Art of Wandering by Arthur Machen, the books on Zen, exciting books from little presses, thick tomes and flimsy pamphlets. This was treasure indeed.


Music played here too, and in front of the shelves was a pond built of stone in which golden fish moved slowly. With the stone, the trickle of water, the lowered lights and the music, it was a magic place, but not a somber one. It was a place to go for peace, a sanctuary in Regent Street; even if on knew every book on the shelves. And then, to the right, on a tall plinth, stood the massive bronze bust of John Cowper Powys by Oloff de Wet which, when no-one was there I would quietly greet by touching my forehead in homage against its cold cheek. I saw that bust again when Jeff opened another shop in Great Queen Street, where it stood in the corner of an elegant parlor. By then the end of its nose had been broken as the result of an accident when it was moved, but it was still a thing of beauty and power.

Just as I had found the Village Bookshop by chance one Saturday afternoon so, by chance, I came upon it’s closing on another Saturday, in November 1981. My wife and I had decided to go into London on impulse and thought we might as well walk up Regent Street. As we reached the bookshop we saw huge signs filling the windows and hanging from the ceiling, announcing it would close that very day. The place was full of people, their arms cradling books. As so often in situations such as this, I was stricken with panic. There were books I didn't have, but would I be able to afford them? As ever, Jan told me calmly to collect together the books I wanted and eventually I hauled an armful to the till, where Jeff himself was serving. He ran his finger down the tall column of books and came up with a price that was in fact, far less than it ought to have been. And so I left the shop for the last time, weighed down with two bulging carrier bags. The next time I passed the building it was full of suitcases and handbags and looked just like any other shop.

Although Jeff later opened another bookshop, a special place had disappeared with the closing of the Village Bookshop. Of course, there were many stories among Jeff’s admirers about why it had happened, but Jeff himself has recently told me that the truth was far more mundane than the dark conspiracies which some of us had imagined. The Village Gate chain, with its sixteen shops, was no longer selling three thousand suits a week and had gone into voluntary liquidation: the subsidy which had kept the bookshop afloat and had paid for the publication of all those books was gone.

Though he would probably laugh at the idea, I feel I owe Jeff Kwintner a great deal. He published the books I needed to read when no one else could provide them; he founded a bookshop unlike any other and he introduced me to Kenneth Hopkins and The Powys Society. Most important of all, once I overcame my timidity enough to speak to him, he prompted me with questions, as every good teacher should. Then, I was foolish enough to think that I could solve the mystery of Powys, that I could encapsulate his essence and describe it in words. But every time I proudly presented my latest solution, Jeff would unravel it with a question and send me away to rethink my grand ideas.


Like Powys and Miller, Jeff Kwintner is a life-enhancer, but that doesn't make him soothing company, as older members of the Society will testify. There are still those who remember his emulation of the Laughing Philosopher when he felt the approach to his favorite "living book" had become too somber and academic, too sterile and analytical.

Twenty-five years after founding the Village Press, Jeff Kwintner is now retired and, it seems, unlikely to venture into publishing again. Nevertheless, his legacy is important in showing what can be achieved when the passion and the means coincide.

Who now would have the courage and the vision to take on his mantle?

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