Starting unexpectedly and specialising in antiquarian finds, Minster Gate Bookshop has evolved over the years to become one of York’s most beloved destinations for new bargains and rare gems alike. Kathryn at New Writing North introduces us to this eclectic reader’s nook.
When I moved to York last year, I already had a go-to bookshop here, and that was Minster Books. Tucked into a street just off the Minster core of the city centre, the bookshop sits behind an outdoor display of the kind of titles which tempt me in every time: with history, nature, folklore, cult classic fiction and very friendly price tags. Once in off the cobbles, you are treated to a labyrinth of little rooms and passages, all stacked on top of eachother and connected by a dangerous staircase. I say dangerous only because the stacks of books strategically placed as I move from one room to another almost always end up contributing to the stack building in my arms. Minster Books is no Waterstones – you can’t expect to find this years’ bestsellers, or an endless stock on its finite shelves – but it has mastered the conditions needed for that age-old, favourite pastime so many of us miss: browsing at leisure, exploring curated selections, and discovering unexpected books you just can’t leave behind.
I was interested in the Minster Gate Bookshop’s unusual mix of old, new and affordable literature. I asked manager Lindsay Thomas to tell us the story of how they got here…
Our bookshop in Minster Gates is situated opposite the South door of York Minster at the historic core of the city. This small street, through which one would have passed into the medieval cathedral precincts, has enjoyed a long and continuous association with books. The inventory for the stock of John Foster, who operated as a bookseller from Minster Gates 1580-1607, is surprisingly still in existence. Formerly known as Bookland Lane, the street was later known as Bookbinder’s Alley when, with the advent of the popular printing press, Minster Gates and neighbouring Stonegate became bustling centres of printing and bookselling.
The business was established by Christopher Holt in 1970. In 1975, having just completed a history degree at Liverpool University, Nigel Wallace was persuaded to purchase 15,000 books whilst browsing in a Weymouth antiques shop. With nowhere to store them nearby, they were stacked onto an articulated lorry and driven up to an empty house near York. After several nervous months wondering why he had been so impetuous, Nigel joined Christopher Holt in a partnership in what was then called Discovery Books. In 1976 Christopher departed to travel the world and Nigel became the sole owner and renamed it the Minster Gate Bookshop. Over time the shop has expanded from the single front room and now fills seven rooms of books on four floors. We have always stocked a large and interesting selection of Children’s and Illustrated books, Folklore, and more unusually, a good selection of Medieval and Arthurian literature. Whilst it is in these areas that we have come to specialise, we are principally general booksellers with an emphasis on the arts and humanities, with a particularly strong section of British and Medieval history, as well as good sections of Literature, Art and Architecture, Theology and Philosophy.
More recently, as manager I have developed the remainder side of the business, stocking new books at bargain prices principally in our basement rooms. I have been able to exercise my love of modern fiction as well as my interest in some of the more esoteric subjects and we now stock one of the best selections of carefully chosen bargain new books in the North.