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David Mitchell - & the Serendipity of Scarthin Books.

Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007

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David Mitchell & The Serendipity of Scarthin Books:

David Mitchell and Scarthin Books of Cromford are synonymous.

Scarthin Books IS David Mitchell, and David Mitchell IS Scarthin Books.

`a stock of eighty thousand books, old & new'

But of course, there’s more to the story than that, much more - like Guy & Wendy Cooper, Ivan Sendall, Corrina Horrobin, Pat, Lorraine, - to name but a few of the dedicated and knowledgeable full time staff; a stock of eighty thousand books both old and new; the Café Philosophique meetings, and a cafe and sun gallery complete with grapevine.

Both premises and owner are the epitome of serendipity!

`an integral part of the fabric and attraction of the village'

Over the past twenty-nine years all have grown organically into one, and along the way Scarthin Books, situated in a picturesque location beside the old mill pond on the Promenade in the hamlet of Scarthin in the historic village of Cromford, has become an integral part of the fabric and attraction of the village.

It has also become something of a tourist attraction, enjoying a worldwide clientelle, and has established a popularity and reputation unique in Derbyshire.

Success in recent years has seen a visit from Central Television’s Tony Francis and the `Heart of the Country’ team, a mention in the `Bibliophiles Bible’, and now in the recently published `First & Last Editions – England’s Second-Hand Bookshops’ by Gordon Allan, Scarthin Books is the only bookshop in Derbyshire to merit a mention.

As Gordon Allan astutely notes, “As you have probably gathered, Scarthin is more than a shop, it is part of the community. The café serves organic food and can be hired for lectures and group meetings outside shop hours at low cost. Books are supplied to schools, colleges and libraries; the shop itself publishes titles of local interest, such as the `Family Walks’ series, and there are now booksearch and internet adjuncts”.

In Scarthin’s introductory leaflet David Mitchell himself writes, “…has grown free of plans, budgets and mission statements, into an eleven roomed rainstorm refuge, where each subject (and staff member) competes for shelf-space, and battles against the territorial ambitions of the café. Whatever your interests, there are likely to be hard-to-find books in this hard-to-find bookshop. They come not just from the international media conglomerates, but also from hundreds of smaller publishers in Britain, America, Europe and the Shetland Isles”. This is indeed, as Scarthin also claims, `a bookshop for the majority of minorities’ and has something for everyone, even an extremely well-stocked `Children’s Room’. In fact, the whole place is bulging at the seams with books of all kinds, shapes, sizes and subjects; it is a veritable bibliophile’s paradise; a love affair between a man and his books!

I went along to Cromford to meet David Mitchell, a bearded enigma who looked like an ageing hippie, but isn’t, and who for years whenever I had succumbed to my bibliophilic addiction and found the lure of his vast, cavernous book emporium too strong to resist, had always seemed to be either too busy to stop and talk, or too busy talking to stop.

This time he stopped long enough to tell me the fascinating story of Scarthin Books, and to reveal a man passionate, if confused about ecology, concerned equally about the health and well-being of the planet and it’s economic structures, and indeed, a man qualified to comment, for David Mitchell PhD., is a Cambridge University educated Scientist!

Born in 1944 at Conisborough, South Yorkshire, David developed an interest in books at Cambridge and collected, “at a shilling each, books on archaeology, topography, natural history and places of interest”.

Following graduation he worked in the County Council Planning Department, moving from the Fens to Derbyshire over thirty years ago.

He vividly recalls, “Arriving in Matlock from the Fens, I was just gobsmacked by the town. I remember driving into Derbyshire and thinking `this is heaven’, I felt completely at home, although at the time I didn’t have one, and slept for two nights in my van, parked in the County Council car-park. It was January 3rd 1972, and very cold”.

Within two days David discovered that Scarthin House was on the market, so he bought it, moved into the living quarters, and took over the shop when Timberite moved out to a relocation at Smedley Street in July 1972.

He continued his work as a Town & Country Planning Officer with West Derbyshire District Council and took in lodgers at Scarthin House.

“In those days there was plenty of space” said David, looking around in fond remembrance at the bulging bookshelves which pack every room, staircase and corridor, “and we had some wild parties here”. He recalled a famous `Bring a Jelly’ party, which incorporated a jelly judging competition.

“The jelly was everywhere, it spilled down the steps and ran into the street, and it’s fame even spread to America, via a guest from the Jellystone - sorry, Yellowstone National Park”, he explained.

Having already in Cambridge “breathed in the mystique and mystery of second-hand books”, David met and married his first wife Pat, and together they opened Scarthin Books in 1974. Pat ran the bookshop whilst David continued his work with the District Council in the Forward Planning Department, which he found, “Over theoretical and just a waste of time, I had made a complete hash of my career”.

Within a fortnight of opening the bookshop David had approached Matlock College and had successfully negotiated the opening of a branch at the college, replacing the defunct SPCK suppliers.

“This trebled our business and within two years I was able to resign from the District Council and concentrate full-time on Scarthin Books” he said.

“We soon found that we’d escaped the rat-race in exchange for the treadmill David admitted, we did’nt plan anything, just let things happen.”

The Mitchells ran the bookshop themselves just using the ground floor and living upstairs, but the doubts and strain began to tell.

Bookshops were becoming very fashionable in Derbyshire. David McPhee opened the large Country Bookstore at Bakewell, others followed in Matlock, Wirksworth, Alfreton and Chesterfield and competition was fierce. The mental strain brought paranoia: “I worried that we were stuck up a narrow back street in a little out of the way village, and wouldn’t be able to compete” said David. The strain ended the marriage, but despite the competition, David realised that what he had thought a weakness was in reality a strength – he was the owner of a unique bookshop in a romantically picturesque location, and didn’t have to pay any rent!

“Scarthin House slowly became a source of vast learning and information, and like Capability Brown I saw opportunities in things, and tried to bring out the spirit of the house” said David.

Despite the closure of Matlock College in the 1980’s and the subsequent loss of business, he has certainly achieved that, and along the way three-times married David has brought up five children here, living in the slowly diminishing living space until 1994.

“The books took over and reduced our living space room by room, they crept up the stairs, along the landing, took over the coal-house and the cellar, and as the family grew, life became a battle to step over the piles of books. As the numbers of books increased, and took over the sitting room and dining room, we were forced onto the top floor” said David.

In 1981 David, together with Belper historian George Power launched the Scarthin imprint and began publishing books of local interest, but the only space left at Scarthin House was in the attic beneath the roof.

“At one time we had over 20,000 books in the roof space, and there was no more room to expand, said David, but the business expanded further with the computerised book search facility and the launch of our web-site, and more staff were needed to keep pace with the demand”.

Eventually salvation arrived in 1994 when the house next door became available, so in typical serendipity style and in keeping with the Scarthin philosophy, David bought it, knocked a hole through the connecting wall – and moved in!

“We could now liberate the four bedrooms, and soon had eleven rooms open to the public, he said, - and yet space was still so limited that we had to store books at the Via Gellia Mills”.

The ever enterprising Mr. Mitchell used the `liberated space’ to make room for a café in the old family kitchen! The café was an instant hit and proved extremely popular with locals and visitors alike.

David, whose bookshop boasts that it `specialises in not specialising’ does not apply that philosophy to the café. He specialises in being self-sufficient and is a keen organic gardener, growing his own produce at the rear of house and bookshop, and appropriately the Café serves a rich variety of organic food. It also provides a forum for philosophical discussion as the `Café Philosophique’ with regular, if haphazard meetings!

As Scarthin Books approaches it’s 30th birthday, David Mitchell looks back and acknowledges that he has sown the seeds of serendipity in fertile soil, and says; “Scarthin Book has grown organically into what you see today. Including me, nearly all the staff here are refugees from other careers, and I feel very lucky indeed to find such dedicated people to run the shop so efficiently. I feel very comfortable with my life and very happy doing what I do; people feel at home here, because it was a home. If you look behind the bookcases in some of the rooms you can still see the children’s wallpaper!”.

Scarthin Bookshop is like a museum which you can buy bits of and take away with you, and like it’s owner, it has an air of serendipity and is bulging at the seams with a unique character and charm of it’s very own.

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Contact Tom: reblee.tom@gmail.com

 
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