Ali Smith: 'How a second-hand art catalogue of Florence's frescos inspired my latest novel'

How To Be Both has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Here, the author recounts the joys of her part-time job dealing in tattered treasures

From time to time over the past few years I've done volunteer stints a few hours a week selling books at our local Amnesty International second-hand bookshop, Books for Amnesty. I live in a university town and the books that come in are all donations, maybe seven or eight in a plastic bag, maybe a whole vanful, a house-clearance, someone's whole-life library, and they're endlessly interesting, tend towards the eclectic and are almost always unexpected repositories of the lives they've been so close to.

Open this copy of Ballerinas of Sadlers Wells (AC and Black, Ltd, 1954) with its still bright-orange-after-sixty-years cover and its black and white photo of Margot Fonteyn on the front, its original price of 6 shillings on the back (now selling at £2). In blue ink on its first page, in neat child handwriting: "Christmas 1954 To Caroline From Christopher." Tucked in beside this there's a postcard of a swaggering tabby cat wearing a collar and a nametag, and written on the back in an adult hand in a much more faded blue, "DARLING CAROLINE, PLEASE do send me a list of things you would like to have so that I can have some help to find YOU a birthday present. I shall be stopping at LIZZIE'S next week so please tell Nannie that my address will be Trumpeter's House. Lots of love xx from Mamma xxxxx I thought Papa's present from you lovely."

Or inside The Book of the Art of Cennino Cennini (Allen and Unwin, 1930) a ticket, single, dated 20 July 1936, Chatham and District Traction Company. Or inside an American first edition of The Buck in the Snow by Edna St Vincent Millay (Harpers and Brothers, 1928) a business card for Miss Katzenberger's Piano Lessons and an address in Queens, New York.

We leave ourselves in our books via this seeming detritus, the slivers of our lives: cigarette cards with pictures of trees or wildlife, receipts for the chemist, opera, concert, theatre tickets, rail, tram, bus tickets from all the decades, photographs of long gone dogs and holidays, once even a photo of someone's Cortina. Now when I donate books to the shop I have a flick through to make sure that anything tucked in them isn't something I might mind losing.

The volunteers, like the books, are of all ages and all lifewalks. They all have some things in common; they're doing this for nothing, for Amnesty, most of them because they really love books, many of them because they love the shop, all of them because they're community-minded. It's quiet in there, browsy, full of passers-by getting out of the rain and regulars who love the place and know that its stock can be curiously timely – it's not unusual to hear someone exclaim out loud at finding just the book she needs or he's been looking for all this time – and the occasional rogue, like the slightly drunk man who chatted to me for a bit at the cashdesk then said, as he left: "I was actually planning on shoplifting from here but since you're Scottish I won't." I called after him as he went out the door: "don't shoplift from a charity shop, for God sake." He gave me a wave and a smile through the window.

Here are some of the things he could've shoplifted that day. A Leonard Woolf novel called Sowing, signed inside Elizabeth from Leonard, Christmas 1962 (the Leonard who wrote it? Maybe). A biography of Leonard Bernstein, signed by Bernstein in a sloping hand. A copy of Axel Munthe's Story of San Michele, signed by him and dedicated to Lady Astor. A ragged copy of A Girl Like I by Anita Loos, in which someone has scrawled in claw-hand on the first page, "pArts Of tHis boOk are VERy sAD".

For every book I donate myself – and this is the problem with a shop like this – a new-bought old book or two, or three, tend to come home with me. So much for culling. But what can you do, when you pick up the prettily illustrated Hunter's Guide to Grasses, Clovers and Weeds (1978) (now £3.00), flick through it and find out that there are kinds of grass called Timothy and Lucerne, that Timothy came from the US in the 1720s, and Lucerne can't be hurt by drought because its roots go so deep. Or 1964's National Rose Society Selected List of Varieties ( Now £2.50). Open it at any page and look what happens. Oberon. Ohlala. Old Pink Moss. Opera. Ophelia. Optimist, the. No pictures, just the lists of names of roses, of the growers, and a brief description. The entry after Optimist, the, simply says: See "Sweet Repose".

My favourite find so far has been a copy of Lawrence's Birds, Beasts and Flowers, not worth much in money terms, apparently, being a second edition. But open it and on its first page someone's stuck a photograph, a young woman in a bathing suit sitting in long grass by the bank of a river, looking in a mirror and powder-puffing, doing her makeup. Above it, in black ink, in sweeping hand, F.N.LW. from P.A. Sept. 1933. The first bit of the book has been well-read. The later pages are still uncut.

Then there's the Frescoes from Florence exhibition catalogue, 1969, an Arts Council publication covering the late 60s European tour. This book, I'd noticed, comes in quite regularly. It always sells. When I saw the third copy come in I picked it up and leafed through it at the desk.

"As is explained by Professor Procacci in his introduction, the removal of these frescoes often laid bare the underdrawing, or sinopia, beneath." I opened it at a page where there was a description of a sinopia in which a woman was holding a small boy by the hand, "later eliminated by the artist, who painted over that portion." The restorers uncovered him, invisible, gone, yet there all along. It's probably the reason I began thinking about the structure of How to be both, the novel I've just written, this book. Who says books don't beget books? And a book that's lived a life, like these books, well.

A gift, from time, to time.

Ali Smith's latest novel is 'How To Be Both' (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99). Order at the discounted price of £14.49 inc p&p from the Independent bookshop

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