And with that the shopkeeper hurled the book into a corner.
It was a signal to us, my brother and me, that we should leave with no further attempts at bargaining. We were in a junk shop, two youngsters of uneducated but considerate parents, and we thought of books as keys to realms of intellectual fulfilment. But we couldn’t really afford them. In my own case I had found that it wasn’t even necessary actually to read them – just having them in one’s room was enough to give one the feeling of membership of the intelligentsia.
We had to populate our libraries from jumble sales and junk shops, and, reader, severally we are still doing that fifty years later. What lies at the root of this addiction to cast-off books? The answers to this question form the subject of this blog and will touch upon vital issues.
Serendipity is the first answer, and it far outweighs utility as a reason for browsing old books. You never know what you’re going to come across. The reader’s attention is drawn to the accompanying blog “Watajoy” – how could all this delightful information have been brought to you had it not been for those two hours I spent one day long ago assiduously rummaging through the books assembled by Cherrington’s in Lodge Road? In the same way one makes one’s way to Hay on Wye, used book capital of the world, not searching for a particular title or author but in the sure and certain hope of coming across something beguiling, fascinating, essential.
But here we meet a problem. Time was when many venues presented themselves as furnishers of serendipity. Take Salisbury. As a boy I took the bus there on market days and there were seven (7) secondhand bookshops in that small city. Now we find but one, the Oxfam. Take Boscombe. Here, in a converted church, and at the end of the road in a dusty old shop called Rowans, the browsing public was offered, respectively, tabletops and cardboard boxes crammed with books, and paperbacks so numerous that they had to be stacked horizontally. Rowans has finally closed down and what used to be the formerly sanctified Ashley Bookshop is now the Ashley block of flats. In Southampton it’s the same. In Winchester we find one (1) old bookshop surviving, and, in an exception that proves the rule, a collection of books in a cloister or crypt of some kind that turns out to be a volunteer-run shop selling donated books in aid of the choir, which indeed you can sometimes hear sublimely voicing some religious thought as you flick through the titles.
Now, you know, and I know, why this is. There still are people who want old books. But the people who have them for sale now find it more profitable to offer them online. Well and good. Hypocrite and traitor, renegade and lickspittle, I have even bought several books online myself, which it would have taken me many lifetimes to find in the ordinary way. I could not otherwise pursue my guilty passion for collecting Straits Times Annuals (the subject of a future blog) from the 1930s through to the 1960s, you can keep the 1970s onwards.
Guilty? I hear you ask, why guilty? Guilty because I am trying to atone for my betrayal of my son, and my own finer instincts, in selling (yes, online!) two copies of this from the mid 30s that were discovered by my young son in Cherrington’s in Lodge Road. Bless him, though a mere boy, he recognised his father’s obsessive need to discover old Malayan books and he came across these, at a pound apiece, in a place where I had not looked. Many years later, a tad impecunious, I sold them. I knew I was going to regret it, and I did. I was driven to buy back replacement copies at twice the price I got for them, but the sting of betrayal still haunts me. The very thing in life that I hold dearest, the serendipitous discovery of the marvellous, I had repudiated, and with disgraceful ingratitude. Well, my point here is that, as it was my undoing, so the internet has offered me the possibility of a redemption that no number of secondhand bookshops was ever likely to do.
Incidental, accidental, discovery is, however, of no concern to the algorithms servicing Abe or Ebay. Browse by category as much as you like, browse till you’re blue in the face, you will still only be looking at little pictures of books; you can’t pick them up, smell them, riffle through them, inspect them, interrogate them. In the future people may still become aware of the unexpected and extraordinary but it will only be because someone else has texted, blogged, or emailed them about it.
Above, I talked about smelling the book, and here I was perhaps pre-empting the second cause of our addiction, mine and my brother’s, to old books. They are cultural artefacts and every aspect of their physicality links us with their period. This feeling is very substantially weakened when surveying them in reproduction, however facsimile. Pick up an old book and you handle history. How much more agreeable it is to read a book in a contemporary edition than it is to read a clean modern reprint.
This incidentally begs the whole question of the acceptability of digitisation. Some time ago I took to taking photographs of possessions and throwing the real things away. Thus I digitised scores of old colour transparencies, piles of old photographs, and files full of items cut from newspapers and magazines, as well as large numbers of fossils which, when one found them, were spectacular, but which, as a collection, achieved unremarkability. Now those digital pictures live in unopened files in my hard drive, and I don’t look at them. If I did, I’m sure, I would re-experience the originals only partially, as through a glass darkly, not able to pick them up, stroke them, and feel that sense of real continuity with the past. Similarly, although I have a Kindle and a Kindle App on my PC and ipad, I do not feel, after all, like using them.
The third source of this addiction is the most interesting. It is the fascination with older styles of illustration, photography, and typography, intimately connected with the appeal of those simpler times when the books were produced. I call this nostalgia by proxy, as the nostalgia seems to relate not so much to times when one was oneself little as to times when one’s parents were growing up. If I am right there is a period spanning some two or three decades before one’s birth which will be of compelling appeal to us. Earlier than that and the appeal is simply historical, but stuff of that special period has some kind of personal effect on us. This hypothesis is testable. Someone born in 1970 should find the 40s through to the 60s as having this mesmerising interest, but not feel in the same way about the 20s and 30s as I do, having been born, by all accounts, in 1949. Let this test be carried out by anyone sufficiently interested in the matter; I can’t really be bothered.
The diligent follower of these blogs will know that a tantalising brush with some Edwardian copies of the Boys Own Annual started in me, at about 10, a relationship with old images that has persisted until now (see Making Mischief). In the last year I have taken up, on a more or less fulltime basis, collecting old books and cutting out the illustrations to make my alternative collages. Thus, when I speak of finding old books, I speak, dear reader, of what I know.
We have seen that the potential of secondhand bookshops is all but gone, and we have dismissed the notion of discovering unknown books on the internet. Whence, then, can one source old books? Let us begin by considering some other unproductive routes.
Forget charity shops, for the most part. What has happened to charity shops is that they have lost their heterogeneity. This will be because they have been subject to increased corporate management in the pursuit of targets. Certainly in every such organisation, from Sue Ryder to Scope, the call has come down to the individual shop to ensure that no book over 20 years old must be displayed. All charity shops have now become the same charity shop. The sole exceptions are some Age Concern shops and maverick outfits such as Floggit and Leggit in Boscombe where the staff still pretend that old books are worth something, even if only as antiques. No, every charity shop has, out the back, someone whose task it is to thank people very nicely for the donation and, as soon as they have gone, to throw away all of the older books no matter what. The trick is to be that person.
That is what I did. I am now the chief thrower awayer of unsellable books in an Oxfam shop in Southampton, and if, on occasion, a book finds its way into my bag instead of into the bin, well, we must remember that it was on its way to the recyclers. The recyclers come around twice a week with a big van into which Eastern European men hurl the plastic sacks that we have filled with discards. They do not give out information as to what happens next to those books, however specifically and repeatedly you enquire. A distracted look overtakes their countenance and they smile absently as they murmur uncertain remarks. Maybe some of them go to Africa, they think. Perhaps some of them get resold, they don’t know. Could be that they are all pulped, who knows? I have not been able to fathom the reason for this vagueness, but, as we shall see, I can now offer more reliable information myself.
Before we get to that, though, we need to discuss a few remaining sources of old books. This is so that you will not waste your time. Do not go Book Sales got up by churches or such. They have all the same books. Think carefully before you try the Car Boot Sale, as here also you risk encountering that same stodgy homogeneity. The regular Car Boot seller may display a few older books, but they will want too much for them. Just occasionally you may come upon a seller intent on decluttering their house, or one who may recently have suffered a bereavement and wishes to ensure that unwanted items go, however cheaply, to someone who wants them.
Why bother, I recently thought, with the middle-man? Why not go straight to the place where people throw away their old things, the dump itself? I made a tour of many local Household Waste Recycling Centres (dumps). In only two of several visited did I find a receptacle designated for old books. At the others there is a slight chance of finding something in the shed for sales of items that their previous owner felt to be useless but which might be somebody’s cup of tea for a few quid. Only in Salisbury do they not have such a shed, shame on them. My favourite is ****** dump. I was rummaging there one day alongside a woman who had piled up quite a number of books but without, I noticed, evincing the joy of the aficionado who has scored. She must, I then realised, be a Car Boot Seller, and that suddenly explained quite a lot to me about the type of books that I have found in Car Boot Sales down the years.
My work at Oxfam has been enriched by the experience I have gained at dumps. I now know, you see, what people do not want. It so happens that I have a keen interest in some of that material, but the vast majority of people do not share this.
Now I come to the culmination of my search for books.
Browsing Ebay for unwanted sets of encyclopedia I came upon an advert for old books in bulk. Uncertain about it, I phoned the number and found out that I could be allowed to go to a certain industrial unit in a certain South coast town not a million miles away from Southampton (forgive me, reader, for offering no more precise information on this), and there I could be allowed to rummage through skips of doomed books. Here is such a skip.
These books are the thrown away of the thrown away. The unit receives all the discarded books from a certain chain of charity shops. A brawny-armed Scotsman then selects about 10% for resale on the internet; the rest he discards. And now, on some days, for a small fee, the present writer gets to examine these and keep some for himself. Finally I know what it was that those Serbian guys could not, or would not, divulge: I know where to go to save books before their final terrible destiny.