“There’s some part of a foreign field that is forever England,” Great War poet Rupert Brooke wrote in “The Soldier.” Even if he was talking about some blood-soaked battlefield in Flanders there is no doubt that what he wrote is true — we Brits get everywhere.
Look hard enough and you’ll find a little bit of Britain all over the River City – two cricket clubs, a rugby club, an English Speaking Union, a Scottish Society of Louisville, a Facebook group of British ex-pats boasting almost 250 members, to name just a few. However, perhaps the most British bit of all is Paul Wheeldon Secondhand Books on Frankfort Avenue, which in just eight months has become a favorite destination for Louisville bibliophiles and Anglophiles.
Although it’s only a small patch on Frankfort Avenue, the store is easy enough to spot thanks to the slew of Union flags and roundels — the red, white and blue bull’s-eyes used as identification on RAF airplanes, also synonymous with the “mod” scene that Wheeldon became a part of back in England. Wheeldon is in the back of the building, behind the record store owned and operated by his business partner, local music guru Matt Anthony.
Wheeldon, a 36-year-old originally from Essex on England’s east coast, has had something of an extraordinary journey to his current location. He started his working life as a motorcycle dispatch rider in London, zipping through the traffic from one financial institution to another. A love of books and reading led him to date his eventual-wife Sara, an American student from Kentucky, and the death of his father-in-law in 2010 brought him to Louisville permanently. By then he had long since dispensed with the motorbike to work as a book dealer.
Being a book dealer sounds a little bit “Shadow of the Wind” Clandestine. Cloak and dagger stuff. “Sadly, it’s not quite as exciting,” says Wheeldon. “My wife and I loved books, were both working part-time in a book store on Gloucester Road in London, and becoming a dealer seemed like a natural progression. Just like doing this now that I’m settled in Louisville, opening a real book store, is another next progression. Being a dealer really just means that you locate books for clients, mostly bookstores and collectors. Dealers don’t normally bother with the ordinary but they don’t deal in international intrigue much either.”
Encouraged and inspired by what he saw in Louisville’s independent bookstore culture, Wheeldon moved here just after Carmichael’s was crowned Independent Book Retailer of the Year in 2009, and has seen it thrive and expand. And now that Carmichael’s has a dedicated children’s store it also means he no longer has to bother stocking children’s books.
“There’s definitely something about Louisville that surprises people, the fact that this city is home to lots of cultured, educated book lovers. These are people who just want something more than Amazon or even Barnes & Noble offers, people who enjoy meeting other book lovers in person rather than virtually. Each of the independent book sellers in Louisville pretty much serves its own niche. It almost feels a little underground, too. People who aren’t into books don’t even know we’re here.”
Blindingly obvious though it may already be, Wheeldon’s niche is all things British. The store is stuffed with gently used classics like Shakespeare and Dickens and glossy works of coffee table art photography on subjects like Princess Diana and Alexander McQueen. For the slightly more advanced Anglophile there are books on subjects like Northern Soul, British design, Mods and scooters. If your walls need spruced up, Wheeldon also stocks a variety of framed posters and book-related art.
The British flavor of Wheeldon’s store is partially a reflection of his taste and background, but also of demand. The USA remains a very lucrative market for British cultural exports, even if this country continues to ignore the delights of steak & kidney pies, jellied eels and warm beer. Louisville is packed with Anglophiles, eager to hear the Queen’s English and to find out what it was like living in Downton Abbey or going to school at Hogwarts. We ex-pats are happy to oblige.
There are also some serious book collectors in Louisville, although Wheeldon tends to avoid the high ticket business so as to avoid competing with All Booked Up on Bardstown Road. “I got rid of everything that had a price tag north of $100, which was partly a result of realizing that the market here for that sort of thing was already fairly loyal and well-served. So I’ve ended up more of mid-market specialist. Everything is in this store for a reason – either it’s something I can discuss and recommend or it’s something that customers have asked for.”
The survival prospects for independent booksellers may appear somewhat bleak, but Wheeldon is upbeat, even if Amazon continues to squeeze out smaller publishing houses and threatens to see off Barnes & Noble, its last major retail competitor.
“The way I see it is that we’ll end up with Amazon, discount warehouses and independent sellers like myself. There is always going to be a market for people who want to go somewhere where their love of books is shared, where they can get recommendations from another book lover or find something that genuinely surprises them. That’s our market.”
Selling is one thing, but publishing is another. Wheeldon, like most of his peers in the independent retail world, is much more leery of Amazon’s growing influence over publishing rather than retailing. Putting the squeeze on smaller publishers could have a damaging long-term impact on what gets published, although he also acknowledges that with the growth in electronic publishing many authors are getting a chance they might never have had.
Real book shops are becoming harder to find across the country – but Louisville’s book scene looks to be in good hands. So if you’re itching to find a good book and no longer trust Amazon reviewers, head to Frankfort Avenue and get a dose of the old country while you’re at it.
Paul Wheeldon Secondhand Books, 2534 Frankfort Ave., is open Tues – Sat 11am-7pm, Sundays 11am-5pm.