Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Second-hand books

‘Stop the car!’ I yelled at the weekend. For as we were driving along I had seen the tell-tale signs of a second-hand bookshop – dust smeared glass, rickety outside table, old man with a beard, and a darkened glimpse of ceiling high shelves stacked with glorious books.

To be fair, good friend J was already screeching into a parking space.

I love second-hand bookshops. My footsteps patter towards them full of hope – what shall I find? I even pause at the rickety tables, where the tomes will be so unloved they will be offered for fifty pence. Not even thieves want the books outside on the rickety table – at best they will be manuals for early word-processors. But I still look and linger, delaying the moment of stepping over the threshold, drawing maximum pleasure from my visit.

Inside I will know at a glance whether this is a good second-hand bookshop, or a bad one. Good means wooden shelves stretching to the ceiling that look as if they survived the Second World War – they will not be from Ikea, and they will nearly all be on the wonk. They will meander along around the room and through the middle, and will create tiny passageways and dead ends and will lead ever further into the shop. Good will also mean stairs covered in faded carpet that will lead to yet more books either stacked in the basement or up on the next floor. At best these stairs will be narrow and you will feel as though you risk your life when you step on them. Another good sign will be someone crouched on the floor who is so engrossed in the bottom shelf that you have to step over them to continue. A bookshop dog, or cat, is also a good sign. And nearly all will have an old man with a beard presiding over a wooden table with an ancient till, pricing up the latest batch, oblivious to the world around him.

Bad will have none of the above.

This bookshop fitted the good criteria, and even went beyond the call of duty by selling random pottery. The old man in charge was a frazzle-headed man in shorts, who looked as though he may have been responsible for some of the pottery in question. And the books! Graham Oakley’s The Church Mice! First editions of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers! The Man From Uncle annuals! But, as with all the good second-hand bookshops these days, the only thing not second-hand was the prices. One of The Church Mice books was selling for £30, the Enid Blyton £70. I held them lovingly for a while before putting them back on the shelf. With prices like that, I might have to go back to buying books fresh from Borders.


Rose said...

Oh I love them too- and fret for their survival with ebay etc.

I loved the bit about no one wanting to steal the books outside- you're right of course. I was outside a bookshop in Covent Garden on Tuesday night and thought why have they just left these prescious books out on display, although specialist they all seemed rare. Of course no one probably would want to steal them.

Jayne said...

I know what you mean with ebay... but I do think that book collecters love the thrill of the chase, of hunting down your own copy. It always feels more special to me than giving up and buying online, which almost feels like a cheat.

I look at the books left outside these shops, and I wonder how they ever got published. I then think if 'the life-cycle of a washing machine' got a publisher then surely there is hope for me! And then I wonder and worry further - can't win!