- Books, Literature, and Writing
The Secondhand Book Shop
Something special ...
I have just been on holiday, and while I was away I discovered something amazing, something that in three years of holidaying in the same area I cannot believe I have never discovered before. And more than that, something that exists in my home town, but which I have never visited.
The secondhand book shop. (I wondered about how to write that: second hand bookshop, secondhand bookshop? But the bookshop is not secondhand, nor does it sell second hands. It is the books themselves that the word 'book' refers to, and not to the shop. Neither does any of this have anything to do with clock faces. Well I'm not sure what the correct way is, so I've gone with secondhand book shop, which I hope is okay for you.)
It's a place that, when you step through its doors, makes something happen to you. Something alters in your physiology, so that every cell in your body is instantaneously in tune with your olfactory functions and your aural workings. This place has a special kind of smell that's unique to the treasures it offers for sale - you'll find no library in the world that smells quite the same (that's possibly a lie: obviously I have not been to all of the libraries in the world). You can smell dust that you dare to believe may be centuries old, and that may contain the ghosted skin cells of the early Georgian lady upon whose copy of Pepys's Diary they fell, and upon whose Restoration bookcase Pepys reposed for several decades (I can make good use of free online encyclopaedic sites, oh yes) until her death, at which time Pepys was passed down for five or six generations until he came to rest in the attic of the great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of said Georgian lady. (We may as well continue with the journey of Pepys, since we've come so far.) Pepys slept in the attic, completely undisturbed for one hundred years, the house changing hands only three times in those decades. At the end of the hundred years a princess hauled herself up into the attic to see if there was anything half-decent that she might be able to flog on the carboot sale. She uncovered the dusty box of books tucked away in a dry corner wherein lay Pepys and his companions, coated in a thick covering of the Georgian lady's skin cells. The princess brushed most of the cells onto the floor, and inhaled a few, and blew many more into the air as she coughed and sneezed. Eventually she carted the book box out of the attic and out of the house, and round the corner to Barter Books, since she thought she'd get more for them there than at the carboot, trading them in for a few quid and a good copy of My Story So Far By Katey Pryce, by Ghost Wryter.
That's what you smell when you step into Barter Books, of Alnwick, Northumberland, or indeed any good secondhand book shop. Slightly different versions of the same story are available at other shops across the country (and no doubt, the world).
What you hear are the books themselves telling these stories, as well as the stories they were printed to tell. Barter Books sell newer books, of course, thousands of them, but that's not what we're interested in. We're interested in the locked glass-fronted cabinets where the first editions sleep, the books that we cannot afford. We're interested in the tiny leather-bound treasures that hide, blushing, between larger and newer paperbacked bestsellers. We're interested in the whole shelves and shelves and shelves of beautifully bound and beautifully battered beauties that are The Classics. Austen, Dickens, Conrad, Thackeray, Wycherley, Eliot (George), Shakespeare, Sheridan (some of my classics; we all prefer different authors), and all of these could be found in the most delightful collection of similarly bound books in the Everyman Library (I am now a collector of books from the Everyman Library).
I entered this hallowed place and felt my voice and my breath catch in my throat. As I wandered, carefully, slowly, I repressed the urge to run gleefully up and down every aisle until I might fall, exhausted, but happy, at the feet of the bookcase containing something very special. No, I was patient, yet I was expectant; I knew that some of my new best and most loyal friends were waiting here for me, and had possibly been waiting, gathering skin cells, for a very long time. How thrilling!
After a few minutes of wandering I did allow myself to pick up a book. It was sitting patiently in the children's section, smiling up at me, impossible to resist. It wore a dulled red leather jacket, bearing a flag of the British Isles and the delicious words that promised something wonderful, The Empire's Children. I creaked the book open sedulously and held it close to my face, so that I could inhale a little of its dusty scent (it's got to be done, don't wrinkle your nose in disgust). The way I decide whether or not a book is for me may differ from the way you decide. With the greatest of care I turn to a page roughly in the middle of the book, and glance at a sentence or two. If they seem readable - in other words, not too clever for me - then I will find the first page proper and begin to read. I cannot tell why I do this; perhaps because in the past I have been disappointed by a book with a first line that promised so much, but this is what I do. The Empire's Children, the first book I picked up, was readable, it had a wonderful first line, and was tantalisingly split into chapters containing stories about children from different countries within the British Empire. It became the first book on the 'yes' pile. I moved on.
But I had not moved far when I spotted something by Archibald Marshall, joy of joys! A book I had never heard of, by an author I had likewise never known: the title was Simple People, and those delightful two words caught my attention. Oh, I just cannot tell you the raptures I enjoyed when I opened at a page that had on it an illustration - pictures by George Morrow - of a man sitting down to tea in front of an open fire with his wife. Simple line drawings, to illustrate the simple occupations of simple people. But the drawings were imbued with such personality and gentle humour to make me need to find out more about them, that this book had to be the next on the 'yes' pile.
And so on it went. I picked up old battered book after old smelly book, the 'yes' pile growing taller and more unstable all the while. What could I do, since this Aladdin's cave was not in my home town? I would not be able to come back and buy treats another time.
In truth, I had four visits to this treasure trove. I intended to visit only once, but it cast such a spell over me that I could not resist making excuses to nip down the road and into the temple of books to turn a quick five minute peek into an hour and a half of frantic searching; searching for what, I was never quite sure, but found it I did, in several colours, sizes and conditions.
The real gems, which I must just tell you about before I finish, were part of a beautiful set of works by William Makepeace Thackeray, one of my very favourite authors. I found them on my final two days in Alnwick. Anything bound in green caught my eye - which is how I ended up with a pretty set of Shakespeare's works, published by the Everyman Library - and these pretty little British-racing leather-bound jewels had a teensy bit of gilding still intact which just happened to reflect a single shaft of brilliant sunlight as it pierced an unnoticed high window precisely at the moment I walked past.* I picked up the book that had almost blinded me, and a smile warmed me from my top to my toes as I felt the soft, soft leather, beautifully yielding to my touch. But the best was yet to come: when I opened the book for my first look at the inside, oh my, such a crinkling and a crackling, you would not believe. I put my ear close to the book and gazed out of a lower window as I turned a few more pages, listening intently, shutting out all other sounds save for the delicate crisping of the feathery leaves of the book in my hands - only onomatopoeic words beginning in 'cr' can truly describe the sound that these beautiful books make: you can almost hear them saying 'cr, cr, cr, cr' in their papery voices. But here are some pictures that might help: they sound like real wood fires, winter nights, ladies in thick woolen skirts knitting socks, hats and scarves; they sound like mulled wine, roast dinners, good brandy, smoking jackets, mantelpieces, black and white photographs; they sound like horse-drawn ploughshares, home-grown winter vegetables, festive garlands of holly and fir, and laughter amid the tinkling of fine crystal goblets. I bought these books - how could I not - and several more besides, handing over a small fortune with barely a second thought. I had no regrets, because, although I could not afford the books, they will bring me happiness for a very long time to come, and will be loyal and true friends for the rest of my life. A small price to pay for such a gift to oneself, no?
The secondhand book shop. How will I ever pass one by again?
* That didn't really happen, except in my head. Actually I was just scouring a particular shelf for something old-looking.