This evening, my wife returned from her new publishing job and gave me a brief overview of the highlights of her working day. I half listened, until she mentioned that 200 envelopes had been returned to her workplace by the Post Office:
"They contained catalogues that we'd posted to bookshops. They were sent back because none of those shops exist any more."
I'd become used to the slow process of attrition that has seen the number of British bookshops halve in seven years, but the image of the 200 returned catalogues really hit home. I wondered what the booksellers who'd worked in those shops were doing now.
For their sake, I hope that none of them ended up in the bookshop I visited today: a sorry affair that has crossed the line from eccentricity to neglect, with piles of unsorted stock, shelves that appear on the verge of collapse and an all-pervading smell of body odour and stale tobacco.
In one section, an elderly man with a respiratory problem rummaged through a pile of Pan paperbacks, pausing only to glare at me and mark his territory with extended elbows. In another, a sparrow-faced woman in her 60s looked nervously at me, as if I was about to perform an indecent act. I tried moving to a different floor, but heard a man chanting "Mmm...umm...hmph...mee..." and made a swift exit.
This was bookishness in the worst sense of the word: dysfunctional, misanthropic and obsessive. I wondered what the staff thought of their clientele, before I realised that some of the customers were the booksellers. But experience has taught me that when I find myself repulsed by something, it is often a smokescreen for something I see in myself. Perhaps I still might become the wheezy old man who smells of stale cake and uses his elbows to deter others.
It seems perverse that this bookshop has survived while far better ones have gone to the wall, but I suspect that its overheads are fairly low and that the building is owned rather than leased. The stock itself is reasonably good and it seems a pity that so much of it is inaccessible. I saw a lot of dead stock obscuring the more sellable titles.
I can feel a quest coming on. If anyone can recommend a decent secondhand bookshop in the south of England (or beyond, as I want to travel around the UK this year), with a good selection of paperback novels, I'd really appreciate it.