Brixton has more than one magical place, but Book Mongers on Coldharbour Lane, with its succession of dogs and its crazy cat Popeye, draws you into its mysterious and enchanting interior like a Harry Potter creation, says Simone Richardson
It’s almost 30 years since Patrick Kelly opened Book Mongers on Coldharbour Lane in May 1992 and Robert Coyne has worked there with him for 20 years.
Patrick has travelled a long way from his Boston, USA, roots. After finishing a degree in political science he visited London for a break and travelled back and forth in the early eighties.
Initially settling into a youth hostel in Holland Park, he was then was attracted to Brixton and it has been his home and workplace ever since.
Patrick was living here before he opened Book Mongers and today still lives on the same street – Brailsford Road near Brockwell Park’s Brixton Water Lane entrance.
Robert Coyne is an actual Brixtonian, arriving here when he was a few months old, and staying.
Book Mongers was originally over the road at 404 Coldharbour Lane, but for most of its existence has been at 439.
Patrick recalls that the Brixton Blog & Bugle had offices above Book Mongers until a few years ago, adding: “An interesting history book on Brixton would be a good idea”.
Book Mongers draws you in – not just for its books – but also its magical, atmospheric feeling – as if it was something that existed in the Harry Potter Dragon Alley.
Before he started Book Mongers, Patrick says, he was “burnt out from being a a social worker.
“I couldn’t do it any more and I think if you can’t do it properly, then you really need not to do it at all.”
His inspiration came from his sister Helen who is now retired” “She had a bookshop in Boston and there really wasn’t a proper general second hand bookshop in Brixton …”
Lockdown changed things. “A lot of reading and walking kept me sane,” Patrick says.
“Rob and I took turns to come in to feed Popeye” – Book Mongers’ formerly stray cat – “I came in the morning and Rob the afternoon. We had a routine.”
Before Popeye, Book Mongers was known for Patrick’s canine friends.
“A few months before lockdown,” he says, “I rescued another dog, but he can’t come to the shop because Popeye is crazy and would rip his eyes out!
“My dog’s name is Boy – known as the Brixton Labrador.”
“The entire time I have lived here I have had dogs, so I have been in Brockwell Park twice a day for over 30 years.
“The first stray was Leo. He lived to be about 19 years old. After he died, when we first opened up 30 years ago, Leo hung out in the shop. When he died, I fostered from Battersea Dog’s home.
“On my way home from work I found one who was wandering around that had been thrown out.
“Her name was Rosa and spent 10 years hanging out in the bookshop before she died about three or four years ago.
“In the interim Popeye the cat wandered into the book shop.
“He is Robert’s cat. I am more of a dog person!”
Patrick explains how the business sources books: “We buy from the public; we get donations; I buy from auctions and warehouses.”
His love of books goes deep. He can instantly recall his childhood favourite, Orr on Ice by a hockey player Bobby Orr that he read at about eight or nine years old
Robert’s choice has a longer list and reveals his youthful passion was fantasy and sci-fi – Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock and Kurt Vonnegut, and Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan and Red Sonja comics … a bit later I had a long phase with crime fiction – Chandler, Hammett, Jim Thompson, and so on.”
Robert’s top three now are The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, “for its savage wit and penetrating perception of human nature”; A Voice Through A Cloud by Denton Welch, “for its beautiful detail, individuality and spirit”; and Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson, “the most haunting of all her brilliant books.”
Patrick’s sole current favourite is Stone Junction by Jim Dodge – “It created an America with characters which is set in the 80s or 90s which I wish really wish existed!”
Robert Coyne, who stopped attending school when he was 14, became a musician – “which has been rewarding in lots of ways, though unfortunately not financially”.
Not much initial training was required to work at Book Mongers,” he says. “You learn on the job – but a love of books has certainly been helpful.”
“Me and Wendy, my wife, spent several hours every day at Book Mongers during the lockdowns, mostly to feed and spend time with Popeye, who flatly refused to be evacuated, but also to be on hand for customers using the ‘click and collect’ service we started then.
“We had a lot of support and messages of goodwill during that time, which helped enormously.
Reading was a big help, too – I read a lot of Haruki Murakami’s books, which I found especially diverting.
“I was riveted by Mr Bowling Buys A Newspaper by Donald Henderson, a unique thriller.
“I also listened to a lot of music, both at home and in the deserted shop, and used as much of the time as I could to work on writing and recording my own music.
“Some of the songs that came out of that will be released on a new album later this year, all being well.”
“My working day now begins with greeting and feeding Popeye when we open at 10.30, which is always a great pleasure; he has a fairly well-deserved reputation for grumpiness, but is actually very soppy and cuddly in the morning.
“After that, I price and put out books as they come in – a steady stream of second hand books and regular large consignments of remaindered titles – researching them if necessary.
“Quite often something wonderful finds its way to us, valuable or not.
“I replace books on the shelves as they’re sold, talk with customers and friends that drop by, give Popeye his lunch and an evening meal – he eats quite a lot, but he is a very big cat! I finally close up at 6.30.
“It’s a lovely job, and I’m grateful to still be doing it after 20 years.”
Looking to the future for Brixton and Book Mongers, Patrick says: “We are waiting for the tourists to come back
“Unfortunately they are turning Brixton into a tourist destination and, as a consequence, 20% of our business has disappeared as the tourists haven’t come back.”
Brixton readers: make sure you support Book Mongers to ensure Patrick, Rob and Popeye stay open for another 30 years!
439 Coldharbour Lane, SW9 8LN