Spring Books: Old Books

Anthony Daniels on the joys of of browsing second-hand bookshops; Christopher Edwards on the life of an antiquarian bookseller

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.

I can’t help thinking – but then I am approaching old age and old men are predisposed to think such thoughts – that this utilitarian attitude, this inability to understand the joys of serendipity, will lead in the long run to an inability to make and understand allusions and to a loss of mental flexibility.

Browsing is a manifestation of multiculturalism in the best possible sense. By browsing, you realise that what you previously did not know existed interests you deeply. The internet, by contrast, is the instrument of monomaniacs.

Now I begin to sound like a second-hand bookseller I know, a fervent believer in Enver Hoxha’s Albanian paradise, who thinks that all forms of modern communication are instruments of the devil – of monopoly capitalism, designed to exploit the common man, who consequently has not a clue about the value (or should I say the price?) of a first edition of Somerset Maugham’s first book, Liza of Lambeth.

This bookseller is always furious that his black customers, old women mainly, are more interested in concordances to the Bible than in Hoxha’s vituperations against the Titoites (Hoxha had a wonderful line in vituperation). The spiritualist section of his shop is particularly strong, since he bought the entire library of a man who subscribed to the Spiritualist Book Club – the table-rappers’ answer to Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club – for many years. Of these volumes, I bought Thirty Years Among the Dead by an American doctor and a slim volume on how to get in contact with your dog once he had passed over to the other side. It was published shortly after the great cull of dogs, a quarter of a million of them, at the beginning of the Second World War, when it was feared there would not be enough food to feed them.

The best place in Britain known to me for general second-hand bookshops is North Wales. There you can pick up the odd volume of sermons by 17th- and 18th-century divines for £5. Of course, I recognise that they are not for everyone. But thanks to my frequentation of second-hand bookshops, I have come to realise that nothing human is alien to me.

Grumpy Old Antiquarians

In mid-February, most of the American, much of the British and a little of the European antiquarian book trade gathers in California for a few days. It is the time of the annual California Book Fair-alternating between Los Angeles and San Francisco – and those who aspire to know the state of the higher end of the trade, at any rate in the English-speaking world, have to be there. Envious, even dreamy, looks from strangers usually greet the information that one is off to San Francisco at this time of year – how marvellous to get away from snowy England for a week, to watch the sea-lions at Pier 39, to take a cable car up Nob Hill or just to enjoy some winter sunshine.

On the other hand, four days in a vast converted tram shed next to a flyover is not everyone’s idea of fun, even in San Francisco, and sunshine – both real and metaphorical – was not much in evidence. Although warmer than at home, the weather was rainy and the roof of the Concourse Exhibition Centre leaks in unpredictable places, so that the books on a few dealers’ stands acquired some extra damp marks overnight.

This was the 42nd California book fair, and although there was some apprehension about the volume of business (in the event, not as bad as feared), there is no likelihood that book fairs will go away. Their rise, since they were first tried in London in the late 1950s, has been continuous if not steady (there was some over-expansion, inevitably). It has been matched by the decline of book shops. At the more expensive end of the trade, this is not only because of steeper rents or the internet or the decline of literacy. It is because most booksellers don’t really like people – or, at least, they don’t like them as much as they like books.

Run a shop and you are constantly having to talk with strangers, most of whom don’t see the world the way you do or who insist on asking impossible questions (“Why is this book worth so much?” – because I say so; because I like it; because it’s mine) when all you want to do is read a catalogue or collate a book. No wonder the antiquarian book trade has retreated to private offices or houses, and has embraced the internet like no other. You can connect with your own kind, like whales across oceans, and the rest of the world can leave you in peace.

The bookseller E.P. Goldschmidt once said that his ideal customer would be one who every so often ordered a very expensive book, by postcard.

Go to any great city now and the major shops are fewer than they used to be. In LA, three (Heritage, William Dailey and Michael Thompson) have gone to private addresses in the past couple of years. London has fewer than it used to, although the ever – ambitious Bernard Shapero is attempting to reverse the trend, and Cecil Court – a smaller, more select version of the old Charing Cross Road – remains delightful in its variety. Perhaps only Paris (as ever the exception) retains open shops in quantity – although there too the occasional misanthropic owner makes you wonder why, and how, the tradition keeps going. It seems easier to retreat behind closed doors, where you can choose your friends.

But reality does intrude: booksellers need customers, and customers want to look at the books and meet the person selling them; and the only way to meet new people if you don’t have a shop is to exhibit at a book fair. Transporting your best books to the other side of the world, setting them out as seductively as you can, letting the visitors look, touch and admire (or disparage) them, and then shipping almost the whole lot home again – it’s the price you have to pay for meeting two or three new collectors who might appreciate and understand what you have to offer.

Incomprehension is, I’m afraid, part of the texture of book fairs. Some years ago I had a copy of Ludolf’s Lexicon Æthiopico-Latinum (London, 1661) at the Los Angeles fair. Along came surely the most likely customer in the world – a white Californian Rastafarian with braided hair down to his waist. In response to his request for anything on Ethiopia I showed him the book. What is it? his companion asked. “It’s a history of Ethiopia,” he said knowledgably, put it back and walked on. I would have thought that the clue was in the title, but there was no point in arguing.

So what of the state of the antiquarian trade, or at least its more expensive end? At the annual London book fair at Olympia, 4-6 June, there will be the usual mix of hopes and fears, magnificence and dross, fascination (to some) and dullness (to others). People have bought old books longer, and more faithfully, than they have traded any other antique object; they will keep on doing so, even-indeed especially – though empires should fade away. The immediate future seems dark, with declining wealth and literacy challenging the dealers to keep their spirits up and make a profit. But the human spirit seems to like collecting, and whoever responds to literature will pick up an early edition of a book they know and feel that it has, somehow, become more alive.

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