Long ago and faraway … well, actually back in the 1970s and early 80s I used to spend many a lunchtime in science fiction bookshops in central London, near where I worked. My favourite was Dark They Were And Golden Eyed, and during the 1970s it was the largest of its kind in Europe. The place was in St Anne’s Court, Soho, and to get there, you went up this alley between Dean Street and Wardour Street, between strip-joints, film studios and music places – all the stuff on which Soho thrived in those days – climbed some rickety stairs and found yourself in two floors of sci-fi fantasy heaven.
The bookshop took its name, Dark They Were And Golden Eyed, from Ray Bradbury’s famous Martian novel, the bookshop took the name, it was my most favourite bookshop ever. the place itself lived up to the promise. It’s gone now, went bust in 1981, I miss it still.
Now, if you want sci-fi and fantasy you go to Forbidden Planet but, like Martin of Den of Geek says, “… the industrial numbers of available books at Forbidden Planet seemed to diminish the value of all of them …” That’s sad. I don’t find FP to be a browsers shop. I couldn’t nip in there in my lunch break and end up being late back because I’d got into conversation with the bloke who ran it! Not like in DTWAGE. It was a source of Roger Zelazny and Ursula le Guin and many, many others for me. The folks in there were very knowledgeable and seriously intelligent, great fun to chat with as well as excellent sources of info on what was new and good to read. And you made friends with fellow customers too. Not like that now.
Again, as Martin quotes Douglas Addams, “… the universe is too large a place, and most people move somewhere smaller.”
Here’s Martin’s musings on DTWAGE …
But the most poignant part of any lost idlings around Soho is my inevitable pass-through of St. Anne’s Court, which defies its grandiloquent name by actually being a fairly dingy little alley connecting Wardour Street to Dean Street. Here you will pass some anonymous glass business façade that once held a place that – to me – was an Aladdin’s cave of geekdom…
Dark They Were And Golden Eyed was a delightfully shambolic two-level science-fiction and horror bookshop that resided in that spot from 1970 until its decline in 1980, and whose polysyllabic name derived from a short story by Ray Bradbury. Myself, I visited the shop only a couple of times, with my sword-and-sorcery obsessed father. Since our interests diverged, I would end up perusing its vast shelves by myself and pouring pretty much any pocket-money I had into the old tills at the end of the ramshackle queues of geeks.
Back then, you were aware that science-fiction was counter-culture, despite the popularity of Star Wars; at DTWAGE the space-operas nestled in crudely-opened cardboard boxes sat cheek to cheek with the cross-hatching of Robert Crumb, punk and new wave fanzines, as well as surprisingly glossy magazines devoted to (strictly theoretical) instructions on illegal horticulture of all kinds. Put simply, the market for sci-fi was a very retrospective one, and no shop of that size was able to carry on regular trading solely off the back of geek wares.
It was here that I found the Alien movie novel for a fiver, which was sort of an extended ‘Bunty’ photo-strip, but with a bit more blood and death, featuring over 1000 full colour photos. On my second trip I followed up this purchase with the excellent Alien: The Illustrated Story, a graphic novel of the movie apparently based on an earlier version of the O’Bannon/Shusett script, as it featured the ‘Lambert-slap’ which was not to be seen in the original until the special edition DVDs twenty years later.
And I wonder if I will ever be made as happy as that again for a fiver. Even accounting for inflation.
DTWAGE was finally bought by its suppliers and morphed into Forbidden Planet, who by the early eighties had split its trade between the flagship ‘purist’ sci-fi shop near Charing Cross road and the more movie-oriented Forbidden Planet 2 in Tin Pan Alley.
Then, as now, I found FP’s endless acres of sci-fi novels so overwhelming that I frequently left with nothing. I don’t know if it was chronic indecision, information overload or just the fact that the industrial numbers of available books at Forbidden Planet seemed to diminish the value of all of them, and in truth I usually only exited the shop with a novel that I had expressly gone in to buy. As Douglas Addams said, the universe is too large a place, and most people move somewhere smaller.