Charity shops are now a British peculiarity, but their bookshelves often contain real gems amongst the airport fiction
The most characteristic institution of British life today – the one that marks this country out from all the others – is the charity shop. There are entire countries in Europe with fewer charity shops than the average British high street, even when their gross domestic product per head is supposedly smaller.
Charity shops in Britain are not confined to poor areas, far from it. Rich areas, if anything, have even more of them. Why should this be? Perhaps the rich have more things they want to cast off; perhaps, also, there are more women in such areas with time on their hands and an inclination to donate their services. Then again, perhaps the relative advantage that charity shops have in not paying business rates is greater in rich areas.
Whatever the reason, charity shops give to the entire country an air of pauperisation – and did so well before the economic crisis, indeed at the very height of our illusory prosperity.
I am myself a devotee of charity shops. I never pass one without entering. This is not because I want any of the kitsch ornaments of which they seem to have an infinite supply, or the clothes, but mainly because of the books.
In charity shops there are always a few shelves of books which are overwhelmingly airport paperback novels with their spines horribly bent. This gives a depressing, but quite possibly misleading, impression of the British public’s reading habits: after all, people have rightly deemed these books not worth keeping.
In among the trash, however, one can sometimes find treasures, though never more than one a shop, which means you have to enter many such shops, and repeatedly, to build up a decent library. A local dry-as-dust pedant has usually also donated a few surprising titles that nestle incongruously among all the Danielle Steeles and Barbara Taylor Bradfords, such as Bond Markets in Latin America or Ostrich Farms and Feeding. Ever since I retired from medical practice, I buy at least a half of my books in charity shops, which accounts for the somewhat miscellaneous nature of my current reading.
But I love listening to people’s conversations in them. Recently, for example, I overheard two men riffling through old LP records. They were collectors rather than listeners, trainspotters rather than aesthetes. One said to the other, “I filled out my collection of Decca SXL with Khachaturian’s Second Symphony – horrible noise from beginning to end. I was lucky to get it.”
It quite made my day.