Secondhand. Preloved. Used. Old. Whatever you call books that are not new, it amounts to the same thing: neglected; unloved; abandoned; discarded. Even the ‘amusing’ epithet of ‘preloved’ simply indicates love that has been given then withdrawn. No longer loved.
Yes, I know that many people see these places as Aladdin’s caves filled with wonder and possibility. Not so for me. For me, a secondhand (let’s call it what it is) bookshop is a bit like going to an animal shelter. My first response in both cases is always one of dismay – there are so many here! Secondly, I think, ‘how can I possibly save them all?’
I went into two such shops today.
In shop one, I was frustrated by the lack of genre categories or alphabetical ordering. I felt I had to scan the entirety of the store to be sure I didn’t miss anything vital. As it was, when I paid for my ‘finds’, or as I prefer to call them, my ‘adoptions’, I couldn’t shake the certainty that I’d missed something. But the ‘usual guy’ was on holiday and the woman standing in for Usual Guy was not versed on what was where. She laughingly told me that if Usual Guy had been there, he could have immediately told me where any of my chosen authors might be stationed. Ha ha! Oh my aching sides. Not. They also had an overflow into an empty shop front next door – and even though I could see literally dozens of boxes heaped up, she wouldn’t let me go in there and poke about, and neither could she tell me what was there. I took my five rescue-books and left, slightly disgruntled.
The second shop was somewhat different, and yet, underneath all the glamour, exactly the same. It was squeaky clean and neat as a new pin. I see books neatly stacked on actual shelves or laid out in boxes, spines uppermost, and the boxes have labels such as ‘Romance’ and ‘Family Saga’, and also ‘Romance and Family Saga’. I stand in the doorway to get my bearings and the proprietor bustles up in a housecoat, carrying a duster.
She asks if I’m looking for anything in particular. Really all I want to do is browse. How can you tell someone that you won’t know what you want until you see it? But I fear she is not really, in spite of the location, a bookish person. I have a sense that browsing is not to be encouraged, and I drag my ‘little book of books’ out of my bag. I tell her I have quite a long list. She’s not bothered by that. She’s waiting. So, under pressure, I panic and begin to blurt out a few names.
‘Patricia Wentworth!’ I feel a bit like Harry Potter frantically trying to come up with the right spell. She gives me a sad smile, and shakes her head.
‘Not done much for a while, has she?’
‘That’s because she died in 1961.’ I explain. I could tell her the day and month, but I’m not convinced she’d be interested, so probably for the first time in my life, I just shut up.
She nods. ‘Ah.’ It appears that being dead is a major hindrance to having your book in stock at a secondhand bookshop. I’d have thought it was the perfect spot, but no. I’m a bit worried about continuing with my list, as I feel most of my favourites are a bit on the no-longer-with-us side. But she is looking at me with an air of expectation. I’m not sure she’s really helpful, I think she just wants to get back to the dusting.
‘Victoria Holt? Mary Stewart?’
That smile again. The same shake of the head. Sorry. I look at my list again and wonder if there’s any point in carrying on with this charade. I feel already know the answer, but perhaps due to some previously-unnoticed masochistic tendency, I ask anyway.
‘Nope, not him either.’
‘Her,’ I say and turn away, intensely irritated. I scan the shelves. They are packed with books by people who are dead – how come my authors aren’t here?
‘Try the clearance boxes out front.’ She suggests. I nod. Somehow even as I rummage through these boxes I know I’m wasting my time. Eventually I give up.
And as I walk away, I’m pretty sure two whole shelves of Jean Plaidys and Catherine Cooksons shouted after me, ‘Take us with you!’ and ‘come back!’ and possibly even, ‘Help!’
It’s the ones left behind that hurt the most.