Sunday, 8 August 2010


My home town, Southport, is a sleepy seaside resort on the north-west coast of England with too many golf courses and a sea front ruined by moronic planners. Among the town's many attractions are a number of tacky shops selling seashells and other tourist tat by the seashore, or rather where the seashore was when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Apart from buying the odd stick of rock and saucy postcard, I'd never really take much notice of these flagships of seaside culture. Not, that is, until the day in the late 1980s that I wandered down the narrow alleyway and up the fire escape that led to the shell shop that was furthest from the retreating sea.

Tropical Shells Galore had evidently been established without much thought for the second of the four Ps of marketing (Place). I'd passed the sign advertising its conchological wares countless times in my youth, but it was a second-hand bookshop that took me into the alleyway, and a hand-painted warning in up-country Swahili - "Mbwa kali!" ("Fierce dog!") - that drew me up the metal stairs for the first time. Entering the first-floor doorway, I found myself inside not just an emporium of tropical shells, but a cross between a cabinet of curiosities and a contemporary curio shop. The Borgesian catalogue in the shop's brochure (click on the image below to read the list) gives some idea of the wonders it contained - exotic and unusual objects from East Africa, the Indian Ocean and assorted other places, including an unnamed British borstal for young delinquents. I remember in particular the model dhow and turtle shell, familiar from tourist shops and restaurants on the East African coast. Others recall the 'witchdoctor', wreathed in incense, who made wishes come true when you pressed a coin into his hand.

The keeper of these curios was an unassuming man, but he had a tale to tell. During the war Rex Grundy had served in the RAF and ended up settling in Kenya, where he ran a hotel on the coast near Mombasa and exported shells for button-making and other purposes. In 1958 he packed up and sailed back to England, opening Tropical Shells Galore with the stock and other knick-knacks that he'd come home with. He continued importing shells and made his own shell ornaments that he sold by mail-order: apparently a more lucrative business than the shop (perhaps not so surprising given its concealed location, though Rex Grundy is said to have been a less than enthusiastic salesman).

Unfortunately I didn't get another chance to ask him about his life in Kenya. The next time I came home from Mombasa the shop was closed and emptied of its contents, the victim of a landlord's plans for redevelopment. The second-hand bookshop I used to visit was also closed, but subsequently reopened in another building in the alleyway.  The bookseller, Tony Parkinson, inherited the mantle of Tropical Shells Galore, and now sells shells, minerals, fossils, and (among other things) a small selection of antiquities and ethnographic objects, in addition to three floors-worth of books. I go there whenever I'm back in Southport, but still miss the old tropical shell shop.

If the curio shops of East Africa and the (post)colonial diaspora haven't already been studied, then they should be. Likewise the history of the shell trade and its analogues (many species of marine mollusc on the Kenya coast have declined in abundance and/or size since the start of the tourist boom in the 1970s, and the collection and purchase of seashells and other marine curios is now discouraged).  Looking around the room in Cambridge that I'm sitting in now, I realise that it resembles a compact version of Tropical Shells Galore and Parkinson's of Southport ("Booksellers, Naturalists & Antiquarians") without the shells, and that my jumbled writing has something in common with these museums of personal memory and imagining. The only difference is that I'm not selling anything. Not yet.

الحمد لله ربّ العالمين

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