I met an antique salesman in Notting Hill, who tried to charge me pounds 45 for a book ...

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The Independent Online
For a long time I lived in Notting Hill near Portobello Road, and discovered what many weekend visitors never discover - that the life of Portobello Road is not limited to the Saturday antiques market. There is an active fruit and veg market all week long. There are many specialist shops, selling jazz records or bicycles. And quite a few of the antique shops stay open during the week as well.

It was in one of these that I spotted a novel I wanted to buy. It's unusual to find books in antique shops, but this particular one had a large bookcase full of them. Maybe the man had initially bought the bookcase then started filling the case with books; maybe he had bought some furniture at an auction and the books had come with it; whatever the reason, he had a case full of books and one of them was the novel I wanted to buy. I can't remember what it was called. It was one of those obscure Victorian novels by female authors called "Mrs" on the spine, and the only reason I wanted to buy it was that, attracted by its handsome leather binding, I had dipped into it and found it quite amusing.

The price was not decipherable, being written in that antique trade shorthand which allows the seller to utter any price he wishes. The price the owner uttered was pounds 45.

"pounds 45!" I spluttered. "It's hardly worth pounds 10. This woman is a forgotten author. This novel is a forgotten novel. Nobody would want to buy this."

"I'm pricing it for the binding," he said. "Don't care about the book. Might be The Good Hotel Guide 1886, for all I care."

"Well, I'm making you an offer for the reading matter," I said. "I'll give you pounds 20."

"pounds 45."

"pounds 20."

The fact that the man didn't even come down a bit indicated that he didn't like the look of me and didn't want his book to fall into the hands of someone who was going to soil the pages with his eyes, so I departed. What the man didn't know was that I lived just around the corner, so every time I went that way to get fruit and veg, or my bike mended, or a specialist jazz record, I used to pop in to the bookshop to look at the book, by which I mean read it. There is no law against reading a book in a bookshop. It's just time-consuming, that's all. My daughter used to work in the Travel Bookshop just down the road, and she said it was not uncommon for people to come in with pen and paper to plan their holidays, getting down all the guide books, copying out the relevant data, and leaving without a word of thanks ...

By reading a few pages at a time I gradually got well into the book, which was not nearly as bad as it might have been, and it got to the stage where I could not always remember where I had read to, so I actually left a bus ticket in the book as a book mark. I don't think I have ever done this before or since, but you must remember that I was doing this as much in protest against the exorbitant price as in order to read the book.

The process of reading was accompanied by haggling as well. Every time I went in and read a chunk, I would say, "How much is this?" and he would tell me the price. The price started to change. He came down to pounds 40, then pounds 35. My offer, however, did not rise to meet his in the time-honoured way of haggling. I thought I had started too high at pounds 20, so I started putting my offer down as well, and we got to a stage where he was asking pounds 30 and I was down to pounds 12.

I think this was the point at which he started his guerrilla warfare. It wasn't very serious. He merely started moving the book around to different places so that I couldn't find it. This was hopeless, as there was only the one bookcase in the shop. Then he started moving my bookmark around in the book, sometimes trying to kid me that I had only read 50 pages, sometimes trying to convince me that I was nearly at the end. I never got upset by this. I merely flipped through the book until I found the right spot, and started using a secondary bookmark, a tiny toothpick, which he never spotted. He kept on moving the bus ticket around, while I went straight to my toothpick.

Came the day when I finally finished the book, at which point you might think that I would call off my visits. Not at all. I had come to enjoy my little invasions so much, and the half-hearted haggling, that I still called in to look at the book and to shift the bookmark around. By the time the notice appeared in the shop window "Closing Down Sale - Everything Must Go" I had got him down to pounds 20, and was offering pounds 5.

"You're moving?" I said.

"Going out of town," he replied tersely. Tersely was how we always conversed.

"You never did sell that binding," I said. "Pity you couldn't find a taker."

He took it down and looked at it. Then, with great pain, he spoke.

"You can have it for a fiver."

I took it from his hands and stroked the pages. The book for which I had been prepared to pay pounds 20 - now mine for a fiver!

"No, thanks," I said. "I've already read it."