On Saturday 13th June 2009, London's oldest SF bookstore, with by far its most SF-literate staff, shut its doors for the final time. A few days earlier I visited it to take some photos, and posted a report on my visit on a newsgroup that evening:

London Underground had been out on strike the previous two days, which meant the only sensible way for me to get into work was by bicycle. Since I often cycle into work when the weather is fine - a round trip of some fifteen miles - this is not a problem and, indeed, usually rather pleasant. So anyway, Peter Weston had informed me that the Fantasy Centre was closing this week and that I should "try and get some pictures of the shop, inside and out - we don't want another 'Globe' situation!" I couldn't really argue with this, but a quick check of their website revealed they were closing for good on Saturday so, what with the strike, if I wanted to get there by public transport that meant visiting either Friday evening or on Saturday, neither of which was convenient for various reasons. Poring over the London A-to-Z in work, I realised that Fantasy Centre was no more than a 40 minute cycle ride from my workplace and that, if I plotted my route carefully, I could avoid all the major roads. A few minutes after this revelation, I was carefully marking out a route with highlighter on a xerox of the relevant page of the A-to-Z, one that took me up back streets, down alleys and - at one point - across a churchyard. And bugger me if I didn't get there in 35 minutes!

a panorama of the shop interior - click on image for larger version-

I stood outside taking pictures from various angles before going in and browsing the shelves. Fantasy Centre is not a place I visited that often since it wasn't in a part of town I passed through regularly and there was seldom a specific book I desperately needed to have Right Now. Back when I was researching THEN, twenty years ago, I went in and asked if they had any old fanzines, a visit that resulted in me coming away with an almost complete run of mailings of short-lived early-60s British apa IPSO and the 1959 ATom Fan Calender (which George Locke was asking £25 for a copy of at CYTRICON V).

Hazel and Mal Ashworth, Ted Ball - Summer 1984

The last time I went there was about five years ago, but I don't recall actually buying anything then. This time I certainly did, picking up four random Jack Vance novels, two of them as an Ace Double - Ace Doubles being on sale at what looked to my eyes to be bargain basement prices. I also got chatting to Erik Arthur:

"So are you going to be moving to mail order and online selling now?"
"No, after 40 years, that's it. We're done."
"What about all your remaining stock?"
"Do you want to make me an offer?"

Erik Arthur

From which I infer no deal has yet been made for someone like Brian Ameringen or Andy Cold Tonnage to take the stock that will remain at close of play on Saturday. According to the website, they opened their doors in 1971 which makes Fantasy Centre possibly the oldest surviving specialist SF bookshop in the world. Well, until Saturday, anyway.

layout of store - diagrammed by James Bacon

I took a few photos of the inside of the shop then, since it was only a few hundred yards away, headed for Drayton Park which, as I'm sure you'll all remember, is where the Epicentre was. Back when I was researching THEN I'd visited the area and gazed at number 84, home to Vince Clarke and Ken Bulmer in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but I hadn't taken any photos. Since I had my camera with me now and I knew they would gladden the heart of Uncle Peter I decided to remedy this oversight.

When I'd been here in 1989, there was an open yard between the railway line and the section of road on which the Epicentre stands, a yard which if memory serves had been a coal depot in Ken and Vince's day, but no longer. Now the shabby terrace containing number 84 faces a row of brand new very modern-design houses and a new bridge that crosses the rail line and leads to the imprssive looking Emirates Stadium, home to Arsenal Football Club. Number 84 is an undistinguished, somewhat down-at-heel three storey property that probably doesn't look all that different now than it did back when Vince and Ken occupied the top floor flat. So I took a bunch of pictures of the house, earning me a filthy look from the current owner, who turned up and went in as I was snapping away.

84 Drayton Park

After that it was then just a matter of cycling across north-east London to get back to East Ham. Once again. I'd pored over the A-to-Z and was carrying a marked-up xerox showing what was the shortest possible route utilizing, back steets, parks, and the like that I could figure out. Which is how I spent the next hour or so cycling along streets I'd never visited before and likely never will again, passing maybe a dozen different rows of shops, several of which contained stores that looked as though they might be of interest if I hadn't been getting knackered and needing to be at home collapsing into a chair as soon as humanly possible. Still, as tiny a part of the whole as I traversed, it was a reminder of just how vast London is.

11 June 2009