Tom Hodgkinson: My kingdom for a radical writer

It is now two months since Victoria and I opened our little bookshop in west London. Our plan was to sell instructive and beautiful books, and to specialise in husbandry, English history and literature, classical literature, pre-1960s textbooks, philosophy, anarchy and music. We wanted to sell old books as well as new because many of the books I like are simply not available in new editions. For example, try to find any book by William Cobbett, apart from Rural Rides, in a new bookshop.

Mixing old and new in this way has led to confusion among customers. Despite the foot-high lettering in the window reading "Bookseller", potential punters wander into the shop, gawp at our shelves, and then ask: "Are these books for sale?" Either they are very stupid or we are doing something wrong, and I've decided that the latter is probably the case. We now leave little blackboards lying around which say: "All books for sale", and I think I need to put a big sign on the front saying "Books bought and sold", and also study the semiotics of book-store layouts.

One of my first realisations on setting up the shop was that I know practically nothing about the second-hand book trade. I have been an avid buyer of second-hand books over the past 10 years, generally from the website Abebooks, which every second-hand bookshop uses to peddle their wares, and I wrongly reckoned that this meant I had a handle on the industry.

In the first place, I wondered where second-hand bookshops got their stock from. There is no point in me buying books from Abe and then selling them in my shop at the same price. As part of my research, I read My Kingdom of Books by the maverick entrepreneur Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed King of Hay and originator of the "Booktown" concept, where small towns revive their economies by opening loads of second-hand bookshops which attract foreign visitors. Booth is a great character, immensely well-read but with no academic pomposity whatsoever. I'd put him in the tradition of bloody-minded autodidactic Englishmen of the Cobbett kind. He also seems to be a fan of the excellent radical GK Chesterton – the subject, by the way, of a silly attack recently by establishment academic John Carey in his review of a new biography by Ian Ker, which I must remember to stock.

The answer to my problem seems to be libraries, both public and private: Booth would buy entire libraries from grand homes and then sell them on to American universities at a vast mark-up. He would spend long days driving around the UK and indeed flying around the world in his search for second-hand books.

But how much should you pay for books and how much should you sell them for? I should spend some time in Hay-on-Wye – the only problem here being that I am banned from the book festival for my part in a banner-slashing incident (a protest against the lack of fees for writers). I've never really had much time for the Hay "Literature" Festival, for the simple reason that it is really a sort of industry jolly used by politicians and celebrities to sell their boring biographies, and therefore has nothing really to do with literature at all. Literature is radical: real writers are courageous souls such as Blake, DH Lawrence, Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Ken Kesey, not careerists such as Julia Donaldson or Chris Evans.

I was pleased to see that this view of the festival is echoed in Booth's book: "Shakespeare, Molière and Tolstoy are immortal," he writes, "compared to low-quality literature which may achieve a quarter of a million sales." Booth could be forgiven a moment of resentment, as surely the Hay Festival was constructed on the foundations Booth had built, in creating Hay's reputation as a literary centre. He also, rather wonderfully, attacks the aforementioned Carey at the same time, noting: "John Carey, the Oxford Professor of English Literature, was to be one of the festival's patrons. A humble Radnorshire school mistress could have told the learned professor that Jeffrey Archer, Barbara Erskine and Craig Thomas had nothing to do with literature."

Still, the organisers I suppose should be congratulated on keeping the book in the public eye, even if they do have to make compromises such as accepting the sponsorship dollar from big banks and allowing Roy Hattersley on stage. And good things do sneak into Hay. I see this year that David Bentley Hart, the author of Atheist Delusions, a brilliant attack on contemporary atheism, is to attend.

And back to second-hand books: if anyone is sitting on a nice pile of school textbooks from the 1940s or those old Faber guides to small farming, please get in touch through this newspaper or the Idler website. Top prices paid!

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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