Miles Kington Remembered: There's fun to be had exploring second-hand bookshops

6 June 1994
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The other day I went into my local second-hand bookshop in the country and found it had been hijacked. Gone were the old occupants – two scholarly gentlemen who seemed to be boarding-school masters of a bygone age, and who sold you books as if they were homework and you were a moderately promising pupil – and in their place were two elegant and attractive middle-aged ladies who were busy unpacking books.

"We're the new owners!" they told me excitedly. "We've always wanted to run a second-hand bookshop. It's going to be such fun!"

I was deeply shocked. Selling second-hand books isn't meant to be fun. People who sell second-hand books never look as if they are having fun, any more than doctors or lawyers look as if they are. (Would you trust one if he did?) When you go into a second-hand bookshop, the owner doesn't look up and greet you with a smile or an inquiry. The best kind of second-hand bookseller doesn't even look up. He avoids your eye, like a priest in some foreign Catholic church when you, the happy sightseer, wander in to look round and he conveys the impression that a) he would rather you were not there b) you will probably churchlift something.

No, there is fun to be had in second-hand bookshops all right, but it's not the proprietor who has it. It's the customer. For us second-hand bookshop browsers, the compulsive searchers out of dusty book stacks and dimly lit upper rooms, there is a thrill which is partly sexual in nature. I say this because each new book you accost in a bookshop is like some stranger you chat up and flirt with at a party.

I am the first to admit that most books turn out to be disappointing, but then so do most people at parties. The great thing about a bookshop is that if one book lets you down, you can pass straight on to the next, without offence. On the other hand, you could probably read a whole book without being challenged. Come to think, I did once. I lived next to the Portobello Road for a while and found a book I wanted on a second-hand stall. It was priced at pounds 20. Too much. I went back week after week, haggling with the man, and although I got him down to pounds eight, it was still too much. Meanwhile, I was reading it chapter by chapter on each visit, and by the time he was prepared to let me have it for pounds three, which I was ready to pay, I had finished the book, so I said no.

Now, that man sold other things beside books, so it wasn't a proper bookplace. Nor was the Square Orange, just off Sloane Square. They sold only books, and they had the right dusty, slightly dark, premises, but there was one thing terribly wrong; they sold books by the yard. In other words, for decoration, to people who just wanted to fill up shelves. They sold books only for the look of them, and most of theirs had shiny leather bindings. Maybe the purchaser even removed the spines when he got home and threw the rest away. . .

A proper second-hand book-shop is one where everything is arranged into categories but the owner can never quite locate anything. Where, although the owner seems to be busy doing something at his desk, you can never work out what it is. Where – unlike other shops which always supply stuff which is in demand – they have the most plentiful supplies of authors that nobody seems to want any more, like Philip Guedalla, Harold Nicolson, Beverley Nichols, Walter Scott and any Sitwell you care to mention. Where they never open until near lunchtime and never close until after dark. Where, if there is any background music at all, it's always a Mozart piano concerto. Where any book you specifically ask for was sold last week, but he's got one very like it. . .

In a second-hand bookshop in Paris I once saw a volume of Edward Lear's limericks, translated into French.

"Is there much call for this?" I asked the man, surprised even to see it.

"No," he said. "I can safely say that in the five years I have been here, nobody has come near buying it."

Is there any other business in which the owner would keep a product on display, even when after five years it had attracted no interest whatever from any customer?

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