This article was orginally published in Focus: The British Science Fiction Association Magazine for Writers No. 56 Spring 2011. The comments at the beginning about an uncompleted MA are now obsolete as I have, in fact, completed an MA, at a different institution. I wanted to put this on my site just to record the passing of this bookshop, one of my favourite places.
Goodbye Holloway Road
By Gary Budgen
Writers often talk about other writers who influenced them. During my brief (one term) stay on Creative Writing MA degree one of the tutors said something along the lines of ‘you choose your influences’. As a would-be SF writer conscious of the tradition of our genre, that act of choosing has often involved seeking out books recommended by others, in the pages of the Clute and Nichols SF Encyclopedia or mentioned by other authors. Much of this involves the search for out of print books and these days this can easily be done on-line. But what about chance? What about serendipity? (Which is a word with an etymology close to us, from a fantasy by Horace Walpole). Serendipity is the beneficial discovering of something by accident. For writers discovering books by chance can be hugely significant, it can mean a new influence. Well for me serendipity had a home and it was a marvelous bookshop, The Fantasy Centre, on Holloway Road in London.
For those who don’t know the Holloway Road it is a traffic choked north London red-route that leads from Archway to Highbury. It is lined with a mixture of shops that reflect both the affluence of nearby Islington and the more working class areas nearby. It has junk/antique shops, cafes, and recently seems to be specializing in sex shops. The one opposite the Fantasy Centre is called Fettered Pleasures, which one wit remarked sounded like it could be a Greek salad bar: it is not.
But the Fantasy Centre had been on Holloway Road since the early seventies and was a world in itself. Run by Ted and Eric it was always a place of discovery, crammed with all those out-of-print titles I was looking for but also writers I’d never heard of, or forgotten about, anthologies on every theme (SF and… sex, cities, paintings. You name it), old magazines, books on genre writing and first editions.
Over the years I used make the pilgrimage there as often as I could but then my job took me to Holloway Road itself. As I now worked nearby I would often spend my lunch in The Fantasy Centre and would always leave with something, usually something I hadn’t been looking for when I entered. When I found out they were to close I asked why and was told: well the lease was up; what’s wrong with retiring anyway, we’ve been here for a long while? I made some quip about needing to keep it open as a kind of social service, a drop in centre for the likes of me. There was more truth in that quip than I’d probably care to admit.
One of the other reasons for closing was that, well everyone is shopping on-line, who goes to bookshops anymore? Science Fiction is often about how the big changes (technological, social, environmental, what have you) affect individuals’ lives. So that comment about on-line shopping was telling; but I find nothing consoling in the irony.
Places shut, thing changes. The Rye Stamp and Hobby Shop in Peckham (rip circa 1985) that used to be filled with wonderfully painted role-playing and wargames minatures; the old Den, home of Millwall Football Club; Catford Dog Track; the London Docks. We all have our own list. But the demise of a beloved bookshop should be especially telling for both readers and writers. If we all end up relying on reviews or Amazon recommendations what place left for serendipity?