The Joy of Books (2)


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.

Bookshelves in secondhand bookshop, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

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.

The labyrinth that is Andrew Morton Books, Brecon

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 …


12 thoughts on “The Joy of Books (2)

  1. It is, indeed, a joy to wander through such places. In my case, with a fixed determination not to buy unless a gem comes to view that there is simply no resisting. Yesterday I saw an 800-page hardcover in pristine condition by an author I quite like for the equivalent of less than a pound. I hardened my heart, though.

    1. “Hard of heart” — not a phrase I ever would have thought applied to you! But yes, I’m a softie: last year I was very good at divesting myself of a lot more books than I ever acquired, whereas this year it may well be neck and neck.

      Still, I do feel virtuous in such places when I resist the urge despite severe provocation; and, believe me, I am often severely provoked (as it was with you and the 800-page hardback)!

  2. What a lovely post! You wax poetically, wonderfully on this subject so close to your heart. And these kinds of bookshops are so rare now, so idiosyncratic, so magical because they do feel like the wardrobe in the Narnia books – step inside and other realms open up, unexpected pathways, worlds you never knew existed.
    Lovely post, Chris

    1. Thanks so much, Lynn, I try my best to enthuse without going too much over the top! I’ve come across so many writers (Eleanor Farjeon, John Connolly just recently, for example) for whom books are exactly the passports to other realms, not just in childhood but right through their adult life.

      There’s so much evidence for the positive effects — for self and for community — that reading widely has that it’s hard to credit that there are those in power deluded enough to think it’s overrated.

      1. Anything that costs them money, Chris, sadly.
        But yes, the power of words and worlds never ceases to amaze and delight. That the same lexicon can conjur such different images in different hands … It is alchemy, isn’t it?

  3. MrsB_inthehills

    Luvvly! I can think of few places that are as soothing as bookshops; those selling second hand books (or pre-loved as they now seem to be called) are special indeed. My youngest daughter, now 24, went on a month-long expedition with a group of school mates before starting her AS year at school. She took with her a favourite book – The Prisoner of Zenda (just the thing for a 16 year old girl to lose herself in!). Unfortunately the book went missing so when she came home one of the first things she did was to go and buy a replacement – a second hand copy. She said she wanted one that someone else had already loved.

    1. Real gems can and do really turn up in such places, Helen, and isn’t it a red-letter day when that happens! I’m curious though — how can we tell the difference between a pre-owned and a pre-loved book?

      Sometimes I find a dedication (eg “From your loving godparents on this special occasion…”) which, from its recent date, suggests the volume wasn’t much loved at all; but mostly any clue as to the owner’s fondness or distaste is completely lacking. Uncut pages in old hardbacks used to be an indicator; an undamaged paperback spine might be a modern-day equivalent.

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