Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Chaos Theory

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.


Donna said...

I live in Melbourne and while on holiday in the UK, last year, I came across a bookshop in Greenwich that matches this description. It truly was chaos! I had to retreat to Waterstones for coffee therapy.

sustainablemum said...

There is a good one in Sedbergh (Cumbria) that we use but I haven't bought paperbacks/fiction from there so can't comment on that section. We buy non fiction there. The owners escaped from Hay on Wye (their words!) and only have a vague idea of what they have on the shelves, I rather like that idea in the 21st century.

Barter Books in Alnwick a shop that is dangerous on the wallet.

Both these suggestions are up North, I defected a number of years ago.

Steerforth said...

Donna - What a pity - with all that money swilling around in Greenwich, a half-decent secondhand bookshop could make a good living. Having run an independent bookshop for a couple of years, I can see how people let things gradually slip. The good thing about working for a chain was that I was accountable to people and had staff to support me.

Sustainablemum - I've heard a lot about Barter Books in Alnwick and would love to go there. I think I'll plan a family holiday that just happens to include towns with secondhand bookshops. Alnwick will be a doddle, as I can pretend that I'm taking the boys to see the Harry Potter castle.

Unknown said...

I second Barter Books - although not cheap, it's certainly a destination and has a lovely feel and good stock.

Regent Books in Wantage, SW of Oxford is huge, sprawling and has a Penguin room - but is very strange and the old guy and his son(?) who run it didn't come across as book-lovers - but were knowledgeable about any book's monetary worth!

Richard de Pesando MA(RCA) said...

Please tell you are not referring to the one in St Leonards, because the description is exact. Bumped into a colleague earlier who told me a bookshop has opened in Bexhill that is literally giving away books that were destined for pulp - maximum 4 per person - that's all they do - give away books. Might have to pop over at lunch time tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

If you get as far as Felixstowe, Treasure Chest books in the town lives up to its name - it's so marvellous I daren't go there very often...


Flavia said...

A Penguin room would be heaven if properly curated -- or even just neatly stacked. I can suggest a few places in eastern Australia if you can travel that far! But far fewer than five years ago. One that was once a vast barn of books is now a restaurant/ function centre using books essentially as props: the book-lookers and diners get in each others' way, and they're unpredictably closed for private events. I now do most of my offline buying at charity sales -- small local(ish) ones and a couple of big destination ones annually as part of a weekend away (if we're clever combined with a classic car event for my partner on the Something for Everyone principle).

Steerforth said...

Annabel - I've often been struck by how unbookish certain people are in the book trade - a classic case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. During Waterstone's unhappy time under HMV, the chain's MD thought that 'On the Road' and 'The Road' were the same book.

Richard - No, it's not that shop, although it certainly ticks most of the boxes I've mentioned. As far as the shop in Bexhill goes, I'm not surprised. There has been a collapse in the price of waste paper, thanks to a decline in demand from China and India, so I'm told, so it's no great sacrifice to give away books where the supply greatly exceeds the demand. The company I used to work for had enough copies of 'The Time Traveller's Wife' to last them until 2023.

Kaggsy - I'll see if I can go there when during my next visit to Mersea Island. I've been meaning to explore Flexistowe and Ipswich for some time. Thanks for the recommendation.

Flavia - I'm grounded at the moment and don't even have a passport, but if circumstances change, Australia and New Zealand will be high on my list. I'll make sure I leave plenty of space to bring some books back. Charity sales sound like a good idea. I had a good trawl in the Lewes branch of Oxfam today - lots of quirky titles.

Letterslive said...

There is a bookshop in Cheshire that's worth a visit. It's based in a 'craft and antiques' farm.
The bookshop itself is called Cavern Books. (The website is not very good.)
Sort of organised into sections, but with a LOT of books piled on the floor. It also has an extensive music section. Vinyl and CD.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Letterslive - I'm not a big fan of books on the floor, but if there's room to sit down and look through them, that's fine. The problem with the shop I visited yesterday was that the piles were in narrow aisles and every time I started browsing, I had to move so that someone could get past. Cavern Books sounds promising - I bet their website isn't worse than mine.

Lucille said...

I like the browsing the basement of secondhand books at The Kirkdale Bookshop in Sydenham. It has been an independent bookshop since 1966. Wholly admirable. We're lucky to have it.

Anonymous said...

Ipswich has no second hand bookshops as such, but a load of charity shops and in particular the Samaritans and the Oxfam book ones - worth a look!


Anonymous said...

Barter Books USP is its train. Strangely soothing.

Parsifal said...

The back page of the Jan. 1 issue of TLS - "Revaluations" by J.C. mentions Lewes second-hand book shops: A & Y Cumming, Bow Windows, and Fifteenth Century. Of the latter he (or she) observes that "the premises are unique, but the stock is over-priced and the welcome cool" and notes a proliferation of admonitory signage "'Please ask before handling' etc." Perhaps the "grand selection" of old children's books needs to be protected from grubby kiddie hands.

Steerforth said...

Lucille - Yes, I've heard if the Kirkdale Bookshop - it has a good reputation. I'll pop in if I'm in the area.

Kaggsy - In that case, Felixstowe will be my first port of call (no pun intended).

Anon - It looks as if Barter Books is the top recommendation. They buy books from me sometimes, so I'd like to see who they are.

Lee - The Fifteenth Century Bookshop is a sad case. I get the feeling that the owners (one of whom sadly died a couple of years ago) like the books but don't enjoy dealing with the public, particularly the tourists and daytrippers that the shop is a magnet for. The woman there has always been fine with me, but I've heard her being very short with other customers and the variety of "Do not..." signs are very off putting. Having run a bookshop on my own for a while, I know how challenging it can be, so I have some sympathy, but it's a pity that a shop with so much going for it feels rather depressing to visit.

Canadian Chickadee said...

We had a lovely book shop (Park Place Books) right in the heart of my home town, along with a gallery shop selling art from the Peter Kirk Art School, a fabulous bakery called Hoffman's, a lovely Italian restaurant called Luca's, a Hallmark card & gift shop, a fish shop, a barber shop, and a couple of other lovely small shops. All are being demolished so that a huge featureless new office block can be built. It's really a shame -- it was such a lovely vital place to visit and shop, and our town is much the poorer for the loss of these businesses. Progress? I think not!

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I've been in a few shops that seem to have crossed the line from bookselling to hoarding. My idea of fantasy camp is to spend a week or two organizing a shop like that.

Ollie said...

Well it's happened for vinyl - when are secondhand books and bookshops going to have their well-deserved renaissance? This obsession with flickering screens can't go on forever - I for one am spending more time in real life these days as I found I was losing too much quality of life and perspective otherwise.

Was sad to note the secondhand bookshop Kim's in Worthing has closed behind the NCP car park. Seemed really clean and well run too. I'll have to check if the sister shop in Arundel is still there.

Steerforth said...

Carol - It's happening everywhere. Even in historic towns like Lewes, although the buildings may be too old to knock down, the local businesses are all too often being replaced by bland chains or shops selling overpriced nonsense to affuent incomers. Stripping out everything that gives a town its unique identity in the name of growth or progress is a foolish thing to do.

Thomas - Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I can see so much potential in these shops and know that I could transform them in a week. I've done it before and would love to have another go one day.

Ollie - I think Kim's in Worthing shut quite a few years ago - something to do with the lease rather than the profitability. As far as I know, the Arundel shop is still open.