At 73, the man who has become synonymous with books in Buxton, has finally decided to hand over the reins of his business to colleague Miranda Midlane.
His last official task as a bookbinder will be to repair a Bible discovered recently in a chest in the Lady Chapel at Youlgrave Church.
Twenty years ago it was the vicar at the same church who was the catalyst for what was to become Scrivener’s Books and Bookbinding when he asked Alastair if he would help out by fixing up one of the Bibles.
“I lived in the village and had been to book binding evening classes as Lady Manners School. At the time I was an art teacher in Sheffield and I had wanted to patch up some of my books which had got a bit battered,” explained Alastair.
“The vicar had heard I might be able to repair the Bible and called round to see me. I agreed to help, but had to buy more materials to do the job than I needed for one book, so I ended up doing more.
“That was how it all started. I worked from home in the conservatory and then started charging for my work.”
At this point Alastair, who is also an artist and sculptor, took early retirement from his job as a teacher and set up a book binding business at a Craft Centre in Over Haddon.
When it was suggested in passing that he should maybe start selling books as well as repairing them he had a Eureka moment and immediately set about asking people for any books they didn’t want. When he got 100 secondhand books he started selling them and buying more with the proceeds.
Two decades later the five-storey shop on the corner of Buxton’s High Street has 40,000 books for sale as well as maps, prints and sheet music.
With a cheeky grin Alastair asks me how I would set about counting the books stacked on the endless shelves in the shop.
Clearly he could tell I didn’t know where to start so he explained it was a challenge that all youngsters on work experience at the shop are given and the answer is to average it out by counting them by the yard.
“We give them extra points depending on how they set about the task and the results they get,” he said.
The young Alastair always had a love for books and, having been brought up in Leamington Spa, he often went to Stratford-upon-Avon and indulge himself in the culture of the famous town.
He also remembers with fondness a bookshop in his home town not unlike his own in which he used to spend many blissful hours rummaging.
“I think I did want to be able to recreate that bookshop from my youth here. I wanted people to be able to relax, browse, have a cup of tea and just enjoy the books,” he said.
That aim the bookbinder has certainly achieved and he has done it so well that it has been listed among the ten best secondhand bookshops in the country by the Guardian newspaper.
He can also boast some famous customers – Jools Holland and Bill Wyman are two of them – and the afternoon I was there Paul Daniels had sent word that he was on his way up from the Opera House for a browse.
Bill Wyman is a member of the official Rupert Bear Society and has almost every annual since 1936, so as Scrivener’s children’s book section is one of the best in the country there is no doubt he is hunting down those last few.
Over the years Alistair has seen many first editions come and go but he still has one of the rarest books he ever found, which is one of Papal Law interpretations.
When asked whether he would be able to spot a valuable book at 20 paces he accepted there was a certain amount of skill involved but at the end of the day a lot of it came down to instinct.
“Remember the TV antique’s dealer Lovejoy?” he asked. I nodded in the affirmative.
“Well he could walk into a room and instantly recognise if there was anything interesting in it. It’s the same for me. I can pick up a book and know there’s something distinctive about it straight away.
“It is just something I feel. I am very lucky to have been able to do this and although I might be retiring from the books and bookbinding I will always have an interest in books, art and writing,” he said.
He is certain the business will continue just as well without him as he says he is also lucky to have had very good staff.
“There are ten of us here including the Saturday staff and two freelance bookbinders and we all have various skills so the only change will be the person taking the responsibility.”