Looking to booking a better future for a city road with an historic past

John Campbell, right, with William McGovern sampling 'continental style'
John Campbell, right, with William McGovern sampling 'continental style'

“You might like to meet John Junk who has opened a bookshop called Belfast Books at 112 York Road,” began a recent note in Roamer’s mailbox from John Campbell, former dock-worker, poet and author of numerous books about York Road and his home in Sailortown.

“He is on a crusade to brighten up the road by encouraging people to take over and open shops that have closed,” John’s letter continued, adding “he’s organising writing classes for local people and has also promised classes on poetry. He is an expert on local culture and is interested in every aspect of it.”

There was a warm invitation in Campbell’s letter which came to delightful fruition on an otherwise cold and windy Friday afternoon last week.

“There are a few tables outside the bookshop,” his letter ended “where you can have coffee or tea, continental style, and talk and enjoy the crack with the many interesting characters who stop for a brew or a browse.”

I arranged to meet John Campbell and John Junk at the shop.

“We’re hardy folk here!” its Sailortown-born proprietor greeted me.

He was sitting, coffee in hand, at a wood-slatted, second-hand table on the footpath. Campbell’s promise of open-air “continental style” was fulfilled, except for the icy north westerly which didn’t bother either of the ‘hardy’ locals. William McGovern arrived and John Junk’s wife Cara served more steaming coffee in big, card-board cups.

The conversation embraced a breathtakingly wide assortment of local history. “Winston Churchill was advised not to come here in 1912,” said Campbell, recounting the iconic statesman’s visit to Belfast over a century ago in support of Home Rule, when shipyard workers surrounded Churchill’s car intending to overturn it.

When they discovered that Mrs Churchill was also in the car the cry went up “mind the wumman!” and the vehicle remained right-way-up.

Some say that the proposed ‘welcome’ would have been less subdued if Winston had come to Sailortown!

William McGovern reminisced about his homecoming from the merchant navy, when he worked as doorman in the Grove Theatre.

The local Troxy Cinema, opened in 1936, was known as the Grove from 1965 till it closed in 1977.

“I remember the first midnight matinee,” said Campbell “with Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai. There was a great bar upstairs!”

John Junk was in the Grove for a show starring James Young in July 1974.

“I was there with my mum,” he recounted, “but the show didn’t happen because Jimmy died on his way to the theatre.”

Campbell remembered the circuses in the Grove, and seeing Frankie Vaughan and Des O’Connor who “let on he was a

local boy so that he’d get support from the audience!”

A Spanish couple entered John’s book-stacked premises, exited with several tomes and cycled off with the wind, waving.

Passers-by exchanged hellos and cars beeped their greetings. Following an anecdote about legendary Alexander ‘Buck

Alec’ Robinson’s monkeys, a welcome variation on his oft-recounted lions, John Junk charted his bookshop’s young and flourishing history.

He rented the vacant, three-storey premises in November 2014 and hung a sign in the window proclaiming “Shhhh… don’t tell the City Centre or South Belfast that we’re fitting out Belfast’s biggest used book store…”

“I’ll never forget people knocking on the door,” he recounted. “They wanted me to open now,” with a heavy stress on ‘now’!

The last local ‘book-shop’, closed in 1972, was a newsagent owned by William’s father, Frank McGovern.

“My biggest surprise when we opened,” said John, “was how much people were reading already!”

The first book he sold was Plato’s Republic “for about £2!”

Poetry was popular too - Shelly and Wordsworth. He pointed to the conveniently adjacent red letter box.

“Our books go all over the world from that,” he explained. “This is a unique place,” commended Campbell “it’s an oasis in a desert.”

William McGovern, well-educated and fluent in German, buys “cheap school-exam books on foreign languages” and helps with a German ‘chat-meeting’ every Friday.

There’s also a community course on lobbying, and a ballet school in a local church hall.

John Junk would love to organise a crime-writing course in a closed down police station…and a cinema, and a coffee shop!

“We’re always looking for donated books,” he said. “We’d 400 given to us last week.”

The Goethe Institute (an international German cultural and information organisation) has donated dictionaries and grammar books, and “a French girl called in yesterday and left a load of children’s French books” said Junk, who, helped by wife Cara and some volunteers, juggles all this around his busy professional commitments in family court work.

“Belfast Books lets me play chess” enthused William, who is unemployed and regularly enjoys check-mating his mates on the table on the footpath.

“People here can’t get jobs,” said Campbell sadly, “there’s no work. No factories.”

A local lady called Jamie, with at least two books “constantly on the go”, added Anne Baker’s ‘Pocket Full of Silver’ to her burgeoning collection.

Canadian academic Janis bought some “bank-holiday reading for her son” and a Russian student and her partner perused the shelves.

“This is what’s called a ‘go through’ area,” commented John Junk, “I want to make it a ‘go to’ area!”

Full information is on www.belfastbooks.co.uk