The Fire

On the night of the 2nd July, 2001, the SPCK Bookshop in Exeter was set alight by an arsonist. A petrol soaked rag was pushed throught the letter box and the Children's Department was soon aflame. Fortunately the smoke was quickly spotted by a tourist who alerted local businesses who summoned the Fire Brigade. The Fire Brigade was on the scene in under 10 minutes and the fire was quite quickly doused. By the time the bookshop staff arrived, the Fire Brigade and Police had already started investigating the cause of the fire with the aid of sniffer dogs.
Arriving at one's place of business to find Blue lights flashing, Fire Engines parked at all angles with thick hoses uncoiled on the cobbles with the Police standing behind their inevitable tape, is the stuff of nightmares for any shopkeeper. As we approached we saw debris on the pavement, lights showing through blackened windows and a tall ladder up against the building. The ladder had broken the glass of the upper windows intentionally in order to let smoke out of the building in case there had been anyone trapped inside.

There was some serious charring and melting of fittings on the ground floor, and severe smoke damage throughout the building. This meant that much of the stock was a write off, but the 550 year old building itself surprisingly resisted the fire and little serious damage was done. The oak beams in particular, even above the seat of the fire, were only slightly charred.

The building was empty at the time of the fire but in fact one member of staff had left just a couple of hours previously as he had been preparing for a book launch the following evening. Naturally the book launch was cancelled and indeed the shop was closed from the 3rd July until it re-opened, fully renovated on 1st December.
The effect on the Bookshop was severe at first but within 6 weeks we had managed to set up a small temporary shop which kept at least some of the business going. The shop was very succesfully relaunched in December 2001. New fittings have made it a better place to work and shop in , whilst the original medieval character of the building has been succesfully retained.
The identity of the arsonist was expected to remain a mystery, but soon after the investigation began, a man from the nearby village of Topsham confessed in a letter to a local clergyman that he had been the culprit. Having confessed, however, he then decided to run for it and tried to leave the country. He was apprehended in Dover trying to board a ferry for France. Within a couple of months he had been convicted of arson and spent some time residing in various "secure establishments". Initially we were very angry with him ("extremely annoyed" as one staff member put it), but now that we have a newly re-furbished shop, we have been able to put it behind us. Nevertheless we do hope that he has taken up new, more benign hobbies since his release.