SIGNIFICANT TALES FROM THE BOOK TRADE

In the course of sorting through my books I discovered I actually own a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Good lord! It’s called Nature, part of the Penguin Books Great Ideas series and is completely impenetrable (to me at any rate), so I’m going to take it into the shop, in case the man who was looking for him comes back. Where on earth am I going to shelve it though? We do have a nature section but I think it will get lost there. I could put it in philosophy but it will get lost there too, so maybe flat on a table or into essays.

A book comes into the shop which is by someone I know slightly. It’s a 2018 hardback and has a personal dedication in it. Well, someone got rid of this quickly, I think. The dedication, I have to say, is mildly passive aggressive. If someone had written a dedication like that in a book I had bought, I’d have lobbed it in the direction of a charity shop straight away, perhaps via the author’s head. My personal opinion about dedications is this:

  1.  Say thank you.
  2.  Say I very much hope you enjoy it.
  3.  Throw in a lot of love and kisses.

That’s it.  Do not make mildly barbed comments about the person’s character; it’s arrogant and self-defeating. Anyway, I price it (maybe slightly too low), stand the book upright in self-help and wonder if it’ll be there next week.

This reminds me incidentally of a great literary feud between V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux which was made worse by Theroux flicking through a rare books catalogue one day and discovering that books he had given to  Naipaul and his first wife with written dedications, were for sale at the princely price of $1500 each. He assumed from that, that their friendship was no longer of any value to Naipaul. It can be a mistake as a writer to equate one’s self with one’s book. I mean what do you say when someone says they don’t like your book – throw a punch? However in this case I would probably have drawn the same conclusion.

I spend some of the day pondering the bookseller’s great philosophical imponderable – how do you shelve a name for example like Victoria Waters-Blake vis à vis Victoria Waters Blake? My personal approach is that Waters-Blake goes in the Ws and Waters Blake goes in the Bs. What do you think? Of course in a shop of many volunteers everyone abides by different rules or like me forgets the rule they are abiding by between one cup of tea and the next. There is also the tricky moment when there is lots of room in the Ws and none in the Bs, so one might veer off the straight and narrow due to laziness or not wishing to bend down – Ws are always at floor level. All I can say to you as a customer is always look in both the Ws and the Bs if you are looking for this sort of author. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example.

This week we are inundated with Atonements (Ian McEwan). And for some reason they are making me cross. Everywhere I turn there is another one waving at me, falling on my foot: small paperbacks, large paperbacks, hardbacks ones with covers from the film, ones without. Yoo hoo over here. Look at me. What about me? Oh, and you missed me. Go away, I want to shout. In all your different formats, leave me alone. In order to calm down I go over and stroke the Viragos, all lovingly gathered together on a small table. And then I throw some of the grubbier, creased, coffee-stained Atonements out. That’s better.

Mis-shelvings are fun. This week’s winners are Women who Run with the Wolves (psychology /self-help) in Nature, Men are from Mars Women Are from Venus (self help) in fiction, and Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (fiction/it won the 2015 Booker. The cover has a vinyl record on it) in music.

charlotte mew

Incidentally, one of the pluses of sorting out my shelves has been coming across a book called His Arms are Full of Broken Things (1998) by P. B. Parris. It is one my oldest TBRs (to be read). I’ve held onto it for 20 years without reading it. I’ve tried fairly frequently. This time I was determined and you know what it’s fantastic. It’s about Charlotte Mew, a poet, and each chapter begins with one of her poems. They are strange and baffling and I love them. Thomas Hardy fell in love with her but she, although loving him, did not want to sleep with him. She had passionate and possessive platonic relationships with women and, after her father died had his suit and coat cut to fit her. I do love a bit of cross-dressing in my books. I like the idea that this book has been sitting on my shelves for 20 years waiting for me to read it. If you’re out there P. B. Parris I just want you to know how very much I enjoyed your book. Thank you for it. And could you tell me what the tarot reader in St James’ Piccadilly said to you, as mentioned by you in the acknowledgments.

You see this is where I disagree with all the de-clutterers. If you haven’t read it you are not going to, they say. Rubbish. If you have read it you won’t re-read it. More rubbish. If you haven’t worn it in the last year you never will etc etc. Absolute rubbish. This book did not spark joy (obviously) for 20 years but now it has sparked a whole bloody fireworks display of joy.  So, you’re all hideously wrong. And by the way because of the heat wave this summer I’ve worn two skirts I bought about ten years ago and had barely worn. Incidentally, despite this rant I have a great deal of affection for the book by Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying because it always sells very quickly when we get it in and I always put it out on one of the tables.

butterfly

In case you think I’m making this stuff up: an elephant, a butterfly and a saint.

This week’s things that fell out of books:

  • A few book marks; the most interesting of which is one advertising the world’s strongest chilli with a cartoon of a sneezing elephant.
  • A gift receipt from Tiffany’s for the eye watering amount of £285. It’s for a bow brush. No, I didn’t know what it was either. Anyway, it was bought in Zurich Airport 22/08/2012.
  • Another saint – this time S. Francesco – Greccio, crying. I have to say I like these saints that keep falling out of the books into my hands. On the back of his picture are the words of a prayer in Italian.
  • A small cabbage white butterfly, yellowy white with black dots on its wings.

I have an extremely odd conversation with a customer. It all starts off OK. She tells me she bought a book from the shop in which a woman had put a lovely dedication to her husband. I say something general about dedications and second-hand books and then she’s off. ‘How could he give the book away and not cut out the dedication? She doesn’t deserve him? She should divorce him.’ I’m baffled – does she know them? How does she know the circumstances of the books coming into the shop? The books might have come in because he or she died. And I’ve never thought that someone would cut a dedication out of a book before giving it to charity. I smile slightly and nod and breathe a sigh of relief when she leaves.

I took another 23 books to the shop this week. And this time I managed to get them all there without retrieving one at the last minute. However the following night I wake up with the absolute certainty that one of the books I have donated contains a dedication to me and my partner. I utter up a silent prayer to S. Francesco, Please let it be there next week. Then I can buy it back from the shop. Or at least cut out the dedication.

P.S. I should also probably confess to having bought a book from the shop. It is called: Wait, The Useful Art of Procrastination by Frank Partnoy. And if you’ll pardon the pun, I can’t wait to read it. Once I’ve read it, of course, I will be able to wait before reading it but then I will already have read it so it will obviously be too late. Or maybe I will manage to wait without reading it and will end up reading it in 20 years time.

 

A BOOKSHOP CLOSES

I’ve worked in a second-hand bookshop run by a charity for the last two and a half years and it’s closing down at the end of the month. I’m not going to go into the reasons why, nor am I going to name it, for reasons you can probably imagine. The shop has been in the dirty, litter-strewn, ugly end of a busy metropolitan street for over fifteen years. We’re the only decent bookshop in the area. Once we’re gone, other than the book sections of other charity shops, it’s W.H. Smiths in the shopping center. Tuesday was my penultimate day working there.

‘What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.’

NEIL GAIMAN – AMERICAN GODS.

Our customers are devastated. Everyone I serve says how upset they are and how much they love the shop. Couldn’t something be done? I’m very upset too and I tell them I am. The manager is off sick. Sick at heart most likely.

Today I even feel affection for my most annoying customer. He is a small wiry man who charges into the shop shrieks Marrrrrrriiiiiiiia at the top of his voice, looks at me, giggles and then goes and slams books around in the art section. When he comes to the counter he says, ‘Maybe I will buy all the books in the shop.’ And I reply, ‘Oh yes?’ Over the years I have tried to handle my raging irritation at this man in a variety of ways and using the various different sections in the shop:

  • Psychology/Self-help – He is suffering from a combination of Tourette’s and mania and I should be sympathetic.  This does not work.
  • Film and Media – I seize him by the lapels and press him against the art section, hopefully a few heavy books will fall on his head and miss mine. Then in my best John Wayne’s sister’s voice I say ‘Do I look like Julie Andrews?’ and then I throw him out of the shop western style and he rolls around under the horses hooves. Horses? Too much Zane Grey as a child. This does work.

‘It is clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way about. Everywhere they had run wild and taken possession of their habitat, breeding and multiplying, and clearly lacking any strong hand to keep them down.’

AGATHA CHRISTIE – THE CLOCKS

There are lots of our regular book dealers in the shop. One makes me laugh by saying, ‘I’m devastated you’re closing but I love the fact your books are one pound.’ Another, in a fedora, accosts me as I am coming out of the back where we store our books.  ‘You are bringing books out from the back,’  he says softly. ‘Yes,’ I reply looking down at the armful of books my knees are buckling under. ‘Can I go in there?’  There are about four other dealers in the shop. Their heads all swivel in my direction in an eerily synchronized, robotic way. ‘No’ I reply. And their heads all swivel back to the bookshelves. For the next thirty minutes Mr Fedora puts me under the sort of strict surveillance that Jack Bauer would approve of, following me as I traipse back and forth putting out new books. My hand has only just thrust, Maurice Bowra: A Celebration, into the Literary Criticism section before it is stealthily removed by the man in the hat with an accompanying, ‘Ahhhhh.’

‘Standing there, staring at the long shelves crammed with books, I felt myself relax and was suddenly at peace.’

HELENE HANFF – Q’s LEGACY

It begins to rain heavily and some of our customers, who have bought books and not wanted bags, come back into the shop to ask for them and for shelter and to repeat how devastated they are. Soon the shop is rammed with damp, devastated people standing shoulder to shoulder staring at the bookshelves. I give up trying to put out new books because I can’t physically get to the shelves anymore. A man comes to the till with a huge pile of books and says, ‘If I take all these home I will get into trouble.’ So we begin to discuss possibilities. I look at him. He’s wearing a jacket and a raincoat over the top. I say,’ You can stuff a couple of paperbacks into your jacket pockets and one of the smaller ones into your inside pocket. If you have a car you can hide the books near the car go and get your car keys and then put the books into the boot and bring them in one by one. A bag will rustle.’ He looks at me slightly strangely and suddenly I realize that the whole shop is listening to our conversation and I feel like Fagin teaching Oliver Twist to dip handkerchiefs. ‘I don’t have a car,’ he says. ‘Well then, yes, you are in trouble.’ As I bag the books up for him he says, ‘I’m devastated that you’re closing.’

‘Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books; homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.’

VIRGINIA WOOLF – STREET HAUNTING

I am now beginning to feel shell-shocked by our customers’ devastation and on the edge of behaving, if not badly, erratically, so I go out the back to make myself a cup of tea. There is half a pint of rancid milk and a thousand dirty cups festering in the sink. It has reached Withnail and I levels of rottenness. The volunteers are depressed and feel let down. They love the shop. It’s a shelter for them too. The sink is a symbol of distress. In a fury I squirt too much fairy liquid into the sink and the bubbles fly up in the air and burst on my nose. I scrub away savagely until it all looks better.

Our final customer of the day buys thirty-six books. He has been making piles of books and knocking them over for about an hour. At the till he says, ‘I’ve had a terrible year,’ ‘Oh dear,’ I reply. ‘It’s awful,’ he says, ‘people have been getting married.’ I become slightly confused, ‘Really?’ It’s been so bad that I have to check the house insurance.’ ‘Oh?’ ‘In case the house falls down.’ I feel torn because he is obviously off his medication. I wonder if I should suggest that he leaves some of the books. ‘Are you sure?’ I begin waving my hand over the huge pile on the till. ‘Oh, they’re not all for me. I’m going to give them to other suitable people.’ ‘OK, then, but will you be able to carry them all?’ ‘My strength is as the strength of ten because…’ ‘Right,’ I say and start bagging the books.

‘We were the only customers downstairs in the shop and there were no windows and only two dim bulbs, without shades. There was a pleasant soporific smell, as though the books had stolen most of the air.

IAN MCEWAN – SWEET TOOTH

We have to close early because there are no volunteers for the afternoon shift. I think that’s terrible and feel infuriated. A volunteer phones up and in a worn out voice says she doesn’t think she can… ‘Can I stop you there,’ I say with all the tact of Godzilla. ‘The shop’s closing this afternoon we’re doing the cashing up. ‘Oh,’ she says. I slam down the receiver.

In the back, when we are getting our coats, a ladder falls on my colleagues head. ‘This place is turning into a death trap,’ I say. ‘Everything is falling apart.’

On the way home, I wonder what will happen to some of our more vulnerable and eccentric customers. Where will they go to get out of the rain? They can’t go into Boots and stare at bottles of shampoo for an hour, can they? And anyway Boots doesn’t have a chair to sit on. Our bookshop is not simply a place where people buy books. For some people it is a refuge. It is a place where maybe they have the one conversation they are going to have all day. What’s going to happen to them?

Do you have a favourite bookshop? What does it mean to you?