Tanned Pages and Coffee Stains: An Essay on Second-Hand Bookshops

Bookmongers, Brixton.

While browsing one of my favourite bookshops recently, it occurred to me how shopping for second-hand books might seem a rather grim affair to some people. It is, after all, a pastime that takes place primarily in dimly lit rooms, consisting mostly of scanning old, dusty shelves full of yellowed paper on which the thoughts of thousands of deceased writers are printed. I would imagine that such a hobby would seem unappealing, if not slightly morbid to most people my age, who would most likely prefer having fun to the solitary pursuit of discovering old books.

But as I am predisposed not to have fun, to find enjoyment in the company of others or to appreciate the feeling of not being weighed down by crippling social anxieties, I love shopping for second-hand books. Where some people find happiness in binge drinking and Daft Punk it seems, I find solace in cheap old books. The pleasure, for me, comes not merely from the words printed inside these books, but also from imagining where they come from, to whom they previously belonged and how they ended up in a second-hand bookshop.

Old books are postcards from another time. They are products of the decade in which they were printed: a book from the 1970s, for instance, looks like a book from the 1970s, whereas a book from the 1980s can easily be identified as such. One can learn a lot about a decade simply by looking at the cover of a book from that time. I once found a book called L.A. Dreams in Oxfam Books in Leeds that more or less summed up the 1990s. It was filed away in the art section of the shop, hidden between two enormous hardbacks, as if purposely hidden from view.

L.A. Dreams.

The cover of the book featured a shirtless ‘90s stud, a sign which should have given me some indication of what sort of book through which I was browsing. Nevertheless, it took me until page 15 before I got a true sense of what I was looking at. It was, unmistakably, a book of softcore pornography, featuring a whole cast of handsome twenty-somethings resting their apparently weary johnsons on various accessories of the day. One young man I recall had nonchalantly sprawled his balls across the top of his parachute pants, while another had arrogantly placed his on top of a Chevrolet Caprice.

I’m certain that I would have thought of these images as terribly sleazy if they had been taken recently and compiled in a new book. Yet given that L.A. Dreams reeked so strongly of an era that elected Vanilla Ice as its spokesperson, there was something endlessly amusing about it. It didn’t seem, as it probably should have, in the slight bit perverse.

I’d like to believe that most old books, even the ones featuring countless photographs of penises, have a certain degree of charm to them. With a well-worn book, much of this comes from the turned down pages, small coffee stains and the sort of handwritten messages that people sometimes write on the inside cover (usually something like “Happy Christmas 1981!”). But alas with age also comes deterioration.

Aside from dentists perhaps, I can think of few others who are confronted more frequently with the visible signs of decay than second-hand bookshop clerks. Their entire workplace is full of antiques, with the exception, of course, of a few stray new books that serve only to show how old the rest of the stock looks. The sight of a new book in second-hand bookshops look strikingly out of pace and is invariably somebody’s unwanted Christmas present, sold on by a person who not only didn’t want to read the book, but also couldn’t bear to have it in their house.

These books can only hope to achieve some sort of ironic novelty status or else be doomed to live out their retirement alongside an old Beano annual or the complete works of Jeremy Clarkson. The Gospel According to Chris Moyles, a book that seems to come exclusively in an enormous hardback edition, as if built to survive endless rereading, falls into this unfortunate category. There are plenty more books like this, too, all of them second-hand bookshop pests, which judging from their factory fresh covers, have never been opened, let alone read.

Durability is low down the list of qualities that I look for in a book. My favourite editions are pretty much all paperbacks, as not only are they easier to read than hardbacks, they’re also much cheaper. Shopping for old books is, of course, unique in this sense; it is one of the few trades where ten pounds is still considered a lot of money. A paperback, usually at the very most, will cost a customer about three pounds. Yet most books are even cheaper than this, even in London, where prices are often determined not by how much something costs, but by how much customers are willing to pay.

The cheapest bookshop I have come across is Bookbarn, a large warehouse full of books of all genres, shapes and sizes located just outside of Bristol. I grew up not far away and although I no longer live nearby, I still make the pilgrimage to buy ten to fifteen ever couple of months or so. Every book there, regardless of its size and condition, is for sale for just £1, and the variety of stock is extraordinary: there are hundreds of Penguin classics; all sorts of journals and educational books; books on journalism, politics, astronomy; thousands of novels, both best sellers and obscure paperbacks that have long been out of print; and almost ten shelves of travel books. The problem, however, is that none of these books have been sorted into any sort of comprehensible order. Everything has just been placed under an extremely vague title—and this is discounting all the books that have been labelled “unsorted”, which is an ordeal all to itself.

As useful as Bookbarn is, I have nevertheless much fondness for the smaller retailers. In London I have spent many hours trawling through the shelves Bookmongers in Brixton and more recently Skoob near Soho. Since I can remember, I have always wanted to work in a shops similar to these: the prospect of doing so has always brought to mind conversations with charming old people, who pop in daily to talk about Graham Greene and E. M. Forster. What could be more delightful? Bookshops are such rare places and always seem to be frequented by mostly nice, unassuming and inoffensive people.

I’m certain that this probably isn’t really the case, although it is nice to pretend—and visiting these places only adds my viewing bookshops as quaint, blissful places where everybody holds hands, nobody watches The X Factor or The Voice and everybody just gets along with one another. No bookshop seems more true to this image than Endeavour Books in Whitby. It might be in fact my favourite bookshop of them all, in part for to its stock, but mostly for its wonderful location, hidden away on a quaint cobbled street down by Whitby harbour.

Endevour Books, Whitby.

A recent tradition that I am trying to maintain is to buy a travel book there every time I visit Whitby. I started doing this after purchasing, completely on a whim, “A Book of Travellers’ Tales”, an anthology of travel writing compiled by the brilliant writer Eric Newby in the mid-1980s. The book features writings from various historical figures (Queen Victoria), explorers (Ibn Battuta) and travel writers (Norman Lewis, Paul Theroux, V.S. Naipaul), most of which are only a couple of paragraphs long. But the images conjured by these people are vivid and reading their thoughts never ceases to rekindle my passion for travel.

The true pleasure of “A Book of Travellers’ Tales” is derived not simply from the text, but also from my memories of purchasing it that day in Endeavour books. This, it seems, is where my great love for old books stems. Old books remind me the day I bought them. They spark memories of dusty shelves, of happy times and hours spent reading blurbs and author descriptions. Unlike almost nothing else, second-hand bookshops can excite and surprise me, teach me things about the world I would otherwise never have known.

I feel fortunate to have books as my vice. I’m too boring and introverted to withstand anything more exciting than bits of old paper. I’m too poor to glorify a hatchback and too sane to find gratification in shooting a gun. My hobby—if it can be called a hobby—is a harmless one, even though I suspect it may be a strange one. I’ve long feared that it might be a sort of neurotic impulse, some desire to retrieve what I described earlier as “postcards from another time”. It surely can’t be healthy, to take such an invested interest in bits of old paper.

In recent years, old books have become something of a comfort blanket for me. Without them, I’d feel as purposeless as an unread copy The Gospel According to Chris Moyles, as weary as one of those exhausted wangs in L.A. Dreams. And so I continue to buy more and more books whenever I can, and in doing so, I fear, move closer and closer towards becoming one of those strange old men who lives in a shed lined with his own filth and accumulated clutter. It would be sad way to end up, but such is my love of old books that I can’t say I’d be too disappointed if this were to actually to become my fate. It’s better, after all, to be an elderly book hoarder than a geriatric boy racer or a ninety-one-year-old gun enthusiast—at least in my mind it is.

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