We’ve seen the sign. We’ve admired the façade. We’ve gone as far as opening the door and stepping over the threshold. What delights await us as the tinkle of the bell dies away?
We hope for, we anticipate, we expect … books. Shelves upon shelves, stretching away into the interior, round the corner.
Secondhand bookshops have a markedly different ambience to shops selling new books. The smell. (Or maybe it’s just the dust — some people are allergic to it, and can’t spend a minute more than necessary inside them.) The shelving itself, usually untreated wood. The idiosyncratic labelling. (Or maybe no labelling at all — you just take pot luck.) The multi-coloured items packed in tightly, perhaps even resting horizontally on rows of vertical tomes. The garish lighting.
You have to hope you’ve set aside a suitable amount of time for browsing — these are not venues for snatch-and-grab expeditions, where that precise title, author or genre is available carefully curated on a tastefully arranged table or marked on a display shelf with the bookseller’s personal recommendation. Here you must linger, there you should wander, treading the maze of fiction and non-fiction round piles of periodicals and other publications.
These shops can be real Aladdin’s Caves, packed with rare tomes, obscure subjects, unknown authors, that out-of-print title you’d almost forgotten about or despaired of ever finding. Your constant hope is that you may come across your holy grail, tucked away perhaps where no one has looked for many a year or even illumined by a shaft of light (or the glare of a neon tube) — the special relic, your heart’s desire, the lost chord.
But not everyone wants a ‘pre-owned’ book that a myriad of germ-ridden hands may have touched, which could harbour known unknowns or conceal jottings and personal dedications to complete strangers.
Then it must be off to the new bookshop with you: it could be one of the steadily reducing outlets for the big chains, or maybe the quietly burgeoning indie popping up unexpectedly in a town near you. It’s to one of these less shoddy establishments we will next wend our way.
More Joy of Books to come …