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Web killing U.K.'s quirky 2nd-hand bookshops

Second-hand bookshops  used to be found in all corners of the United Kingdom.  But these quirky and quintessential British icons are falling victim to be power of the Internet.
/ Source: NBC News

LONDON — "84 Charing Cross Road," a 1987 movie starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, told the true story of a relationship that crossed the Atlantic based upon the love of books.

Don't plan on visiting the film's setting, though, unless you are looking for a glass of wine. The address that became the movie's title no longer sells books, and hasn't for some time. (Its latest incarnation is as a wine bar.)

And now the fate that overcame that store and the many other second-hand bookstores that once lined London's Charing Cross Road is spreading to the rest of the kingdom.

Take, for instance, Ian Sheridan's Books, the type of store that comes to mind as typical of a quirky and quintessentially British institution.

Sit in the garden, overgrown with vines, and have a picnic with a copy of "Alice in Wonderland."  Or flip through a dusty leather-bound by the fireplace in a home away from home. 

Sheridan's vision for the shop — "I wanted it to look like a private library and I wanted it to be relaxing when you came in" — has made it a place where people come and sit for hours.

"People can go and sit in the garden," says Sheridan, "and in the winter we have a fire in the parlor and they come and sit and tell you all their troubles." 

But Sheridan's shop in Hampton on Thames is closing down. Customers simply aren't coming to browse any longer. 

"I think we've been affected by the Internet and eBay in the last three years," says Sheridan, who believes he has lost 50 percent of his customers due to book-buying online.  John Prescott, another veteran bookseller in a village just down the river from Sheridan, also places the blame on the Web and says he, too, is getting near the end of his bookselling days

'A fantasy world'
Fans of old-fashioned bookselling mourn the loss of a certain magic that comes with this new-found efficiency. 

Saskia, a young actor browsing in Sheridan's shop who asked that her last name not be used, says the crowded shelves and relaxed atmosphere fire up the imagination and stoke the senses. 

"I might find 'The NeverEnding Story,' and start reading and wake up in that world," she says. And if she's in the right frame of mind, the shop helps guide her feelings about a book.  "Every now and then," she says, "I just go, 'Yeah, I can smell the history in it.'"

Sheridan believes browsing is a platform for discovery, that people mostly come to second-hand shops not always knowing what book they are looking for — or are maybe not looking for books at all. 

"It varies, some people come in and merely want to make contact with the book," says Prescott. "Other people just like to expand their social life." 

And Rita Zimnol, who rents a small corner of Prescott's shop to sell her books, adds another dimension. "If you're looking online," she says, "you're looking for things that you already know exist. 

"Things become less sterile when you come in and touch a book and you flick through it and you see the quality of the paper. ... You can't get that online." 

Customers, sellers, stories, and history fading away
Also lost, say the booksellers, will be the colorful characters that often go with these shops. 

One incident Sheridan recalls started with a phone call. The person wanted to leave some books with him.

One morning soon after Sheridan arrived at his shop. "The doorway was piled with books up to the top and into the street — about two-thousand books," he says. After browsing through them he found many first editions and other valuable items. The owner, though, never contacted him. 

Another customer of about 80 would always bring him a very funny joke. This helped him overlook the fact that he never changed his attire and seemed to never wash. 

Sheridan says there are a couple of people interested in buying his shop to continue selling books, but it is more likely to become an apartment.

Prescott’s options aren't as hopeful. "All the enquiries we've had have been people wanting to open restaurants," he says. 

Zimnol, meanwhile, will continue to sell at book fairs. And "I'll sell some books over the Internet." 

If you can't beat them, join them.