Last week I was on a writing retreat at the Hirst, the wonderful newly renovated Arvon centre in Shropshire (my room was top left). I took a couple of hours off one afternoon to visit Ludlow. It is one of the loveliest small towns in the country with streets of exquisite Georgian houses, the sort of place that used to be stuffed with second-hand bookshops. And yet it doesn’t have a single one (though funnily enough there are two binders!). There are shops to gladden the hearts of foodies, loads of restaurants, posh clothes shops, even a pottery, but no second-hand bookshop. I am quite sure of this, because after some time wandering fruitlessly around I went into the Tourist Information office and asked. Only charity shops, I was told, and sometimes stalls on the market.
How can this be? Although I am all for raising money for charity I still think it’s sad that charity shops have taken over from second-hand bookshops. They are just not the same. They don’t have the same range of books, or the same smell of old paper, or knowledgable staff, or eccentric owners. They just don’t feel the same. I did go and look at the market and found mostly new, discounted books. I bought a jar of home-made marmalade for my husband and came sadly away.
“‘Alas,’ wrote Henry Beecher Ward, ‘Where is human nature so weak as in the book store?'” Where indeed? (Unless it is while browsing on Amazon, finger hovering over ‘Buy with One Click’?) This, from an essay on second-hand book shops, is just one gem from Anne Fadiman’s delightful little book, EX LIBRIS: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMON READER.
This book, given to me by my brother, is right up my street. It is a collection of the columns that Fadiman wrote for the magazine of the Library of Congression. She married another bibliophile so that books play a big part in their marriage. I especially enjoyed ‘Marrying Libraries’ because some of the debates were all too familiar. My husband and I married libraries, too, and as my husband still had his first wife’s books (she had died a few years before I met him), and she had inherited her parents’ books, we found we had an awful lot of duplicates – or even triplicates in the case of novels by E. M. Forster, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. Which ones to keep and where to put them all?
Fadiman’s range is wide: plagiarism, unfortunate dedications, mail order catalogues, ink. And there are some wonderful anecdotes here. Haven’t we all at some time thought of something we want to make a note of, when no pen is handy? This happened to Sir Walter Scott while he was out hunting: ‘a sentence he had been trying to compose all morning leapt into his head. Before it could fade, he shot a crow, plucked a feather, sharpened the tip, dipped it in the crow’s blood, and captured the sentence.’ That is true dedication to the writing life.
PS. If you’d like to read my hitherto unpublished ghost story, ‘A Trick of the Light,’ go to www.corridorsmagazine.org where you can read it and a whole lot more for free.
PPS. While I am blowing my own trumpet, my short story, ‘Vanishing Act’ has just been published in the March/April issue of ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE. It’s set in a hospice and was inspired by the wonderful care that my mother had in St Catherine’s Hospice in Scarborough. I am sure she would have approved.
A few weeks ago I mourned the passing of Galloway and Porter’s. In Oxford last week-end at the Mystery and Crime conference at St Hilda’s I thought of another much-loved second-hand bookshop that vanished some years ago. I can’t remember its name, but it was on the road leading up from the station and on the other side of the road was a restaurant – Malaysian, I think – with the memorable name of Munchy-Munchy. The shop itself was on several floors, there was a big battered sofa, and lots and lots of books. An amusing feature of the shop was a trompe d’oeil bookcase which containing books that were themselves fictional such as Mr Casubon’s KEY TO ALL THE MYTHOLOGIES and X. Trapnel’s CAMEL RIDE TO THE TOMB (one of a number of wonderful titles invented by Anthony Powell in A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME).
Oxford was a good day out from Birmingham where I was living in the early 1980s and a number of books still on my shelves were bought at that shop. I acquired a volume of short detective stories edited by Dorothy L Sawyers in which the standout story was the chilling ‘The Hands of Mr Ottermole’ by Thomas Burke and on another occasion some of Hilary Waugh’s crime novels for only a pound or two each. Much enjoyed by my mother, these were first written in the 50s and 60s and can claim to be the first police procedurals. They are still very readable.
I went back to Oxford for the first time in ages about eight years ago and the shop had gone. In its place was a shop selling hifi equipment – or was it computers? A poignant moment.
You know how it is sometimes when there is something you particularly want to see on holiday, but somehow you drift on from day to day and for one reason or another it just doesn’t happen. Sometimes you make a big effort and get there and sometimes you don’t.
When we were on holiday a couple of weeks ago, the place I wanted to get to was Hale’s Book Shop near the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells. I had been there before, certainly once, maybe twice, but many years ago. The time I was sure about was a poignant occasion almost exactly 20 years ago. I was with my mother and we were en route to the funeral of close family friend who had died in his forties. His own mother had died when he was young and my mother had been a maternal presence in his life. I was fond of John, too. I can’t remember now why we were hanging around in Tunbridge Wells: waiting for a lift on the way? waiting to catch the train home? I’m not sure. I can just remember being in this attractive second bookshop choosing a book and I really wanted to visit it again.
The first time I tried I got there 5 minutes before it closed. I dashed in and snapped up a World’s Classic of Chekhov short stories, including ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ and that only whetted my appetite. Finally on the last day on the last possible occasion my husband and I made a last-ditch effort, spent half an hour there, and, holy-moly (as my daughter would say)! What a bookshop. Wonderful stock -and the prices! I bought a copy of Jason Becker’s THE CHINESE, Bamber Gascoigne’s THE DYNASTIES OF CHINA, and DELIGHTING THE HEART: A NOTEBOOK OF WOMEN WRITERS, edited by Susan Sellars. Three paperbacks in excellent condition and what did they cost me: £3. Yes, that’s £3 for the lot! How can they do it? It’s cheaper than a charity shop.
And added to that was the pleasure in roaming around a fine old book shop run by people who love books and know their stock. Sheer bliss. And isn’t it great when something is even better than you remember it?