Just back from a summer book-hunting safari, mainly around what we might loosely call the English Mid-West, with a few stops closer to home on the return leg. Some thirty bookshops or other outlets on the itinerary, if we include a number of book-stalls in antiques centres and a couple of charity shops.
Most of these can be swiftly glossed over – that would be very much the kindest thing. Bookshops where they appear to think that wrapping a couple of courtesy purchases in pretty paper and handing over a tasteless bookmark might make the dismal experience of being there a better one. Bookshops where they not only offer no courtesy trade discount but grotesquely overcharge you for postage. Bookshops where you can feel and almost taste the foxing spores hanging tangibly in the air. Bookshops where you pause more than once to think – this must be the worst copy of this book I’ve ever seen, the worst copy in existence. Charity bookshops where they mire the dust-jackets with their adhesive stickers.
Bookshops which aren’t open at their advertised times are too familiar a complaint to dwell on. I ran a small shop for long enough to know that just once in a while this really can’t be helped, but with some shops it appears to be both deliberate and habitual. Book-rooms and book-stalls in antiques centres, almost invariably unattended, remain an enduring mystery. Perhaps I was unusually unlucky, but I visited perhaps ten of these and came away with nothing more than a paperback for a pound to read on the train. I’m sure there must be exceptions, but they seem all too often to operate simply as dumping grounds for unsold, unchanging and probably unsaleable stock, which is odd because the antiques in the adjacent areas are very often of quite a high standard.
So far, the trip had been a depressing one – making me wonder in my bleaker moments why so many people who don’t actually appear to like books or have any great regard for them ever choose to become booksellers.
But the sun came out and the tide turned, as it always does. A warm and courteous welcome from John Richards of Etbooks & Bookbinding in Leamington Spa – he even delayed setting off on his holiday for twenty minutes or so while we had a chat. A smallish selection of books, it is true (he’s primarily a bookbinder), but I found a few things I was very pleased to acquire. He’ll send them on when he gets back from holiday.
Banbury next stop – and the Books & Ink Bookshop in White Lion Walk. A very nicely laid out and tidy bookshop – I always so much admiretidiness in others because I’m so very bad at it myself – new books as well as old, over 20,000 of them in all. A visit made just in time as they are preparing a move to a new shop at Winchcombe in the Cotswolds in a couple of weeks (mid-September 2019). In half an hour I had bought more books (a couple of boxes – the first just arrived and very nicely packed) and spent more money than in the whole of the twenty-five or more outlets visited so far. Things were looking up and I wish them every success in their new home.
And better still the following morning – an early start in Brackley and the Old Hall Bookshop. Years since I’d been there – I suspect ten or twelve, so it could well be twice that (in fact it’s eighteen, I’ve just checked). Lots of good books – new, old, second-hand, rare, collectable – all sorts. I had soon accumulated a healthy pile, the meagre spending of the previous few days now comfortably dwarfed, and paused for a word with owner John Townsend. “We don’t often see people like you”, he said. “People like me?” – I puzzled, what on earth could he mean? People who still write cheques? People who arrive by bus? People who wear a suit when they are working? People who still buy Somerville & Ross? How odd and unusual have I become over the years? (There really is no need at all for anyone even to contemplate answering that). But what he meant was simply that the London trade no longer visits shops around the country in the way it did in years gone by. And this is true. We can blame the internet, but I think the process started long before with the proliferation of book-fairs from the 1970s onwards. It’s a mistake – there are some very good books and very good bookshops out there still, even if you have to struggle past some of the bad ones. And nothing beats holding and handling a book before you buy it.