Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Why second-hand bookshops are just my type

As bookshops are displaced by the internet, the author of a new work on serendipity describes the joys of delving in dusty shelves

Shelf life: browsing in bookshops is rewarding in a way that surfing the internet can never be - Why second-hand books are just my type
Shelf life: browsing in bookshops is rewarding in a way that surfing the internet can never be
Birds of a feather flock together: and if birds could be tweedy rather than feathery, I would be of that genus or species. With others of my ageing type, I assemble outside provincial book fairs waiting tremulously for them to open, as drinkers waited outside pubs in the days when they still had opening and closing hours. We all rush in, hopeful of finding something special and fearful that others will find it first. It isn’t only fish that get away.

How many hours, among the happiest of my life, have I spent in the dusty, damp or dismal purlieus of second-hand bookshops, where mummified silverfish, faded pressed flowers and very occasionally love letters are to be found in books long undisturbed on their shelves. With what delight do I find the word ''scarce’’ pencilled in on the flyleaf by the bookseller, though the fact that the book has remained unsold for years, possibly decades, suggests that purchasers are scarcer still.

Alas, second-hand bookshops are closing daily, driven out of business by the combination of a general decline in reading, the internet and that most characteristic of all modern British institutions, the charity shop. Booksellers tell me that 90 per cent of their overheads arise from their shops, and 90 per cent of their sales from the internet. Except for the true antiquarian dealers, whose customers are aficionados of the first state and the misprint on page 287, second-hand bookshops make less and less economic sense.

Second-hand booksellers are not in it for the money, of course: it is probably easier to make a good living on social security. The booksellers love books, though not necessarily their purchasers, and in their way are learned men. When they have been in the trade for many years they know everything about books except, possibly, their content. Possessed of astonishing memories, they say things like “I haven’t seen another copy since 1978”. Some of them seem destined to be mummified among their books like the silverfish, and probably cannot conceive of a better way to die.

Full article at The Telegraph

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