Is the clock ticking for the second-hand bookshop?

May 26th, 2011 § 2 comments

It’s not the demise of bookshops I fear in this age of Amazon and e-books. It’s the demise of second-hand bookshops.

Maybe it’s because I’m incurably cheap by nature – I bought way more books second hand than new. Or perhaps because one such bookshop was a comfort and beacon throughout my teens.

If this were the whole story, then logically, I guess, I’d have to have even more concern for libraries. There the books are not only cheap, they’re free. And our local library was an influence in my life even before I discovered the second hand bookshop. To this day, I spend more time in libraries than in bookshops of any kind.

But there is one way in which the institution of the second-hand bookshop outstrips the library. Second-hand bookshops are treasure troves, thrown together by happenstance. They’re more exciting than libraries, where purchases are considered and made by informed people, beacons of society. The purchasers for second-hand bookstores are you and me and people even weirder than us. The kind of people who’d sell their books once they’re done with them.

The library in the town where I grew up had a lot going for it. It had a sensible and, to my mind then, sizeable collection of books. You could read Dostoevsky and Austen, the sanitised romances of the day, even a good selection of approved histories and such. They let you borrow two books at a time, for two weeks, four books if at least two were non-fiction. Check this out: If you had the stylus on your record player approved by a hi-fi dealer, you could even borrow records! And there were art prints you could borrow to hang on your walls. (That’s how I came to grow up with reasonably colour-accurate paintings by famous artists in our house.)

But the second-hand bookshop was more appealing, and not only because it was closer to my house. They had tacky books. (No pornography – that was strictly verboten in our world.) They had the books that were bestsellers ten years earlier and books that never sold in any number and books that perhaps should never have been published. They were interesting. Some of my strongest memories are of truly strange books. I remember a book about President Nil, who ran a Nihilist country where you could get cheap plane tickets if you were willing to be towed behind the plane in a draughty glider, with the sound of crying babies blaring on the loudspeakers. No idea of the title or author. Any suggestions?

I started my years of patronage at The Book Exchange with War Picture Library and Battle Picture Library, little cartoon-like illustrated books with stories of World War Two, the graphic novels of the time. This is where I gained my impressive command of German: Achtung! Heil Hitler! Gott im Himmel. (Or is it in?) And, of course, the utterance most closely associated with the Germans in those stories: Aaaaargh!

Later I graduated to prose books of very similar nature, written by people like Alan White and Spencer Dunmore – names that would pop into my head like swamp bubbles decades later as I write these words. Alistair Maclean. Or, switching sides, Sven Hassel, H.H. Kirst and Heinz Konsalik. There was a lot of veneration for the Germans in those days, especially among teenage boys.

Then came the books of a generation of bestselling authors: Leon Uris, Robert Ruark, Frederick Forsythe, Irwin Shaw or the glitzy Harold Robbins. The rather intriguing Trevanian, whose books I reread recently. (How could anyone who was so patently scornful of the genre games he was playing be embraced by so many genre readers? The Loo Sanction. C’mon!)

This is where I discovered Raymond Chandler, Vonnegut and Nabokov, later Philip K. Dick – authors who would remain lifelong favourites. I unearthed books by Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer and Nelson Algren. (Algren won the Pulitzer Prize in his day. I challenge any of you to go find a book of his in a bookshop today.)

This is what made that second-hand bookshop so wonderful, that The Great Gatsby and E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensmen series could stand side by side. Yes, I know they’re all on the Internet now, but you can’t stand cheek by jowl in cyberspace, can you?

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