For the love of old books: The guide

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Indy Lifestyle Online
drif field's guide to second-hand bookshops has led many a reader to nirvana and many a shop owner to apoplexy. We invited him to lead us and read us round the capital. Here goes. . .

It is the second-hand bookshops which make London the lit cit. New book shops are the same everywhere, doing what the publishers, reviewers and hypers tell them. They can compete only on service but second-hand bookshop owners have enough independence, intuition, intelligence and indifference not to have to follow the diktats of this week's literary fashion - consequently they seldom bother about service. New bookshops contain only the latest overpriced fads and hideously expensive classics but second-hand bookshops contain every known facet of civilisation. Not all the 200 second-hand bookshops in this island of dreams bear close inspection but there are more second-hand bookshops in London, and thus more chances, than anywhere else in the world.

My current favourite is the tiny Just Westerns in Camden Lock which deals only in cowboy fiction. I tried reading the owner's recommendation Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. It was dire, but what was riveting was his enthusiasm for it. Most bookshop owners could give lessons in dumb insolence to cigar-store Indians.

Charing Cross Road is synonymous with second-hand books, and it is still true that if you are an ordinary reader (somebody who wants the book because of the words, not the author, edition or the binding) it is a good place to visit. The first surprise is how few second-hand bookshops are left, but the second is much more pleasant: how cheap most books are.

Those of you with grander educational ideals and pocket books should head for Bloomsbury, where you would be thrilled by what has happened south of the British Museum. While the British Library's new shelves have been rejecting books with abandon, the Bloomsbury shops have been abandoning the old combative methods of selling. By far the most impressive is Ulysses, which specialises in modern firsts, and Travel It's basement is a literary festival.

By far the smallest bookshop is St James's Art Books, in Piccadilly

Arcade. It specialises in 20th century art and does so with flair and finesse that belie the pomposity of some of the contents of the books they sell.

Finally, a word of guidance: Remove books from the shelves correctly. Do not pull from the top of the spine - that is how the books become damaged but push in the books either side and then pull out the one you want by the centre of the covers.

Even the shops which specialise, such as Books of Asia in Moreton Street, Pimlico, have books that are not just a treasure of the East, but a distillation of the whole continent.

All the following bookshops are usually open at least four days a week and deal in general books unless other wise stated. This list is only of recommended shops which have sensible hours and sensible stocks. Those excluded I recommend you avoid.

I should point out the opening hours of a secondhand bookshop should be seen as the one chance the booksellers get to use their imagination. Ringing and asking for a particular book might work in television ads but. . .

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