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In Pursuit of the Unknown

The charms of the second-hand bookshop are not always immediately apparent to those who don't regularly use them. They are generally cold and unheated in winter, stuffy and airless in summer and always badly lit. The stairs to upstairs rooms, if any, creak dangerously and are narrowed by piles of books whose titles it is backbreaking work to decipher (but no true bibliomane would miss them).

The smell of dust and mould as the browser removes a book from a shelf tickles the back of the throat and imparts a dry cough which excites the bibliomane to further exertions, but is apt to put off most others.

An ambience of decay and desuetude raises the bibliomane's hopes of finding a real treasure all undiscovered, and he begins to tremble with excitement.

Most such bookshops are now to be found in small towns where rents are reasonable but readers are few - larger, more expensive towns and cities must make do with charity shops. They are almost the only commercial establishments in which it is more usual to find classical than pop music played and perhaps this accounts in part for the modest size of their business. The owner or his surrogate, rarely less than 60 years old, is to be found hunched over a desk, examining catalogues or the contents of newspapers. Quite a lot of booksellers know everything about books except their contents.

General second-hand bookshops are becoming fewer and fewer, killed off by the internet and the reading, or perhaps I should say the non-reading, habits of the young. A few years ago, for example, Torquay had nine such shops, now it has none. All second-hand bookshop owners are agreed that the young have a different attitude to books from that of their elders: it is purely instrumental, driven by what they need for one reason or another to read. If a shop does not have the title they want, they do not stay to browse.

The joys of serendipity are therefore unknown to the younger generation, who find it bizarre and irrational that grown men and women (but far more men than women) should spend many hours happily in pursuit of they know not what. Modern lives are far too full of work and strenuous leisure for such a seeming waste of time, the more so as there are websites that claim to have 50 million books for sale on them. The chances are that whatever you want, no matter how obscure, will become available to you and delivered to your door in a day or two at the press of a few buttons. Why, then, wander among the mould, the dust and the dried-up silverfish? It is inexplicable.

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