How many hours, among the happiest of my life, have I spent in the dusty, damp or dismal purlieus of second-hand bookshops, where mummified silverfish, faded pressed flowers and very occasionally love letters are to be found in books long undisturbed on their shelves. With what delight do I find the word ”scarce’’ pencilled in on the flyleaf by the bookseller, though the fact that the book has remained unsold for years, possibly decades, suggests that purchasers are scarcer still.
Alas, second-hand bookshops are closing daily, driven out of business by the combination of a general decline in reading, the internet and that most characteristic of all modern British institutions, the charity shop. Booksellers tell me that 90 per cent of their overheads arise from their shops, and 90 per cent of their sales from the internet. Except for the true antiquarian dealers, whose customers are aficionados of the first state and the misprint on page 287, second-hand bookshops make less and less economic sense.
Second-hand booksellers are not in it for the money, of course: it is probably easier to make a good living on social security. The booksellers love books, though not necessarily their purchasers, and in their way are learned men. When they have been in the trade for many years they know everything about books except, possibly, their content. Possessed of astonishing memories, they say things like “I haven’t seen another copy since 1978”. Some of them seem destined to be mummified among their books like the silverfish, and probably cannot conceive of a better way to die (Theodore Dalrymple, Telegraph UK).
Certainly Mr. Dalrymple has more of a fascination with books and bookstores than I do. However, I’m no stranger to them either. I love going to bookstores and browse over the selections. I estimate half of the time; I don’t even purchase a book. For whatever reason, the mood doesn’t strike, so I just continue to browse. Perhaps I’ll write down a few authors’ names or a few titles, go home and do a little research on them. Recently I purchased a couple books, in which I am reading now. One is a biography on Trotsky and another one is on Keynes and Hayek. I am enjoying them both.
At any rate, when I moved to my new home a little less than two years ago, I found this huge second hand bookstore. It isn’t far from Barnes and Nobles and from my estimation, stays just as busy.
Score one for the little guy. I’ve been in there several times since I’ve been here and have picked up some real finds.
But what I really want to share is this. Behind my house, on a country road leading one out toward farm country, there is an old white house at the bottom of a hill, between two ancient red oak trees, just before a set of railroad tracks. This house serves as an antique shop and a used bookstore. I had to check this place out, so I made some time to drop in.
The proprietor, a very old man, must live upstairs from what I gathered during my visit. The day I stopped in, I had to let myself in and walked around the place but there wasn’t very much light. I walked to the counter and smelled a faint scent of fresh paint. I did a quick process of elimination and figured whoever owned the joint must be in the back doing some touch up work. Presumably through the open doorway covered with a red curtain.
I call out in the direction of the red curtain, “Hello. Are you open for business?”
“I can’t hear you. Hold on and I’ll be with you,” came the old man’s voice from the back.
The poor old man moved like molasses in winter. He shuffled and breathed very hard. Once he made his appearance through the red curtain out from the back, I repeated what I was there for.
“Don’t get a lot of visitors.”
“Well, I guess that means I get the place to myself,” I said with a smile.
It didn’t register or he didn’t care to entertain my humor. Instead he labored around the room and turned on the light switch. Then stretched out a tripod, which its lights gave out searing heat. I think that is what he meant when he said he didn’t get a lot of visitors. He wasn’t prepared for customers in other words. Keep in mind, all of this took a while to accomplish.
The place itself smelled old, dusty, musky, used. It was all very secondhand: Very forgotten. There was no real order to the place. I couldn’t but wonder, which was older; the old man or the house and the stuff in it?
But it served its purpose. It was loaded with old books, maps, biographies, etc. I was able to score a very old Napoleon Bonaparte biography written in the early 20th century. I also found a book of similar age called America As A Civilization. I haven’t read either one of them. They are just here occupying space on my bookshelves.
I can’t even begin to recall all of the various subjects that were stacked on those shelves and on the floor (would it matter that I spotted several mouse traps too?). I stayed and looked around for a very long time. The old man sat near the counter patiently.
As I walked and explored, I noticed the place had an upstairs. I asked if there were more books up there. He couldn’t hear what I was asking, so I had to walk up to the front and ask again. He told me there was not a working light up there. However, he offered to run an extension chord up but I told him not to bother. I told him I would come back at another time.
I haven’t. Made it back that is. Maybe I’ll go back before Christmas has passed. Grab up a few real beauties and put them on my shelf. Say, maybe the old man will be expecting me this time and have the lights on.