There’s magic in a bookshop. A palpable, near hypnotic, almost blissful sense of wonder. Which can, if I let my guard down, led to me leaving with a pile of books and my wife pointing out the restricting mathematics of shelf space. I suppose it’s fair to say it primarily exists in the second-hand variety of the bookshop. First hand bookshops are very nice, don’t get me wrong. All those uncracked spines. All that shiny furniture. The sale tables grouping together all the books that're now the cornerstones for TV shows or movies. The recognisable brand coffee shops with free wi-fi and the illusion that their chairs might be comfortable. Still, there’s something antiseptic about those places. Something clinical, in a private healthcare sort of way.
Yes, you spent a lot of money here today, but we stamped your loyalty card. Aren’t we lovely?
The other variety, the second-hand breed, is something else altogether. Something very special. Something akin to the game trail or seeing the zoo animals out of their kind cages. Gone is all the middle of the road, easily ignored marketing material. Gone are the TV book club stickers and 2 for 1 deals. Instead, you're presented with an wondrous assortment of cast offs. The books some people only needed to read once. The books that were taken from a house clearance and sold on, like throwing your catch back into the current. You can trace the rabbit holes other people went down, if you're careful. You can spot the patterns in the mounting versions of the same classic novel. The student thumbed copies, with their annotated pages. The sci fi classics, with their trippy original covers. The Christmas present celebrity autobiographies that didn’t quite hit the spot once they were unwrapped.
I love all of that. I will browse through every shelf if I have the time. Just on the off chance I'll spot something I’d never known I wanted before. In a high street bookshop, I make a beeline for certain sections. Sci fi. Horror. Poetry. Films and TV. Occasionally music. Very occasionally art, if I’m feeling rich. In a second-hand bookshop, I’m hunting through as much of the stock as I can find. Always wondering what they've got out the back that I wasn't allowed to see. Maybe that's where all the Doc Savage books are hiding. Or the illusive old, early versions of Clive Barker and James Herbert, before they got the branding down. Still, the more mixed those shelves are, the better. The more of a winding maze the shop is, the happier I am. I like to get a little lost in a bookshop.
We found one in Paris, I think in the Latin quarter, not too far from our hotel. It made a point of saying it sold English books. I skipped through that front door. It'd felt strange being there for a week and having to walk past every bookshop. To be honest, it'd felt blasphemous. (Well, I had nipped into one comic book shop, but that was just to check out their Moebius collections.) This shop was fantastic. An oasis of dusty old paperbacks and once loved hardbacks. The genres mixing into grey areas. 50s jazz creeping out from the speakers. The chaos of the city left behind at the door. There was an old woman hunched behind her till. She was drinking coffee that smelt like it’d been made with a minimum of five heaped spoons. The ash tray by her side was full to bursting. Laying over the counter in front of her was a large, ginger cat. It raised a curious glance our way as we came in. Its owner more fascinated by a grimy looking paperback she was devouring than her pet. As we began to browse, the cat decided to keep us company. It hopped down from the counter and comfortably followed us at a distance. Only occasionally winding between our legs and purring that a little love could be sent its way too.
There turned out there was a basement to that place. The shelves reaching right up to the low ceiling. Small, occasional piles of books appearing around a corner like snow drifts, each one threatening to topple into an avalanche of contents and paper cuts if you weren't careful.. There was no shelf space to accommodate them. Clearly our French host wasn’t aware of Shelf Maths either. Although they did seem to make good resting points for her ginger friend.
We spent a good hour in there before we bought ourselves a couple of interesting looking books and headed back out into the noise and pollution streaked passions of Paris. As we left, the cat hopped back onto the counter and stretched out where our purchases had been laid out. The woman gave its ginger fur an absentminded stroke, her eyes never leaving the page she was reading.
I loved that place. It was one of the bookshops that conjured the theory in my head that all second-hand bookshops might just be linked. It’s them and Premier Inns, I reckon. Turn the right corner, get onto the right floor and you might be able to find a corridor that runs a little longer than it should. Keep going along it, ignoring the fact there are no windows and you've been walking a while. Hear the background sounds of the city dip away before they rise up back up. It’s very possible you might just come out in another place. Another city. Why not? The potential on those shelves can be dazzling and those books have come from so many different lives. They have travelled themselves. It makes sense they could rewrite the building that's keeping them altogether. Shifting the dust, warped shelving and well worn carpets to somewhere completely different. Especially when you consider the slightly over-hyped nexus point of British second-hand books, Hay-on-Wye. The place which tempted me to take a list of hard to find books but, instead, presented me with a lot of remaindered stock and a horde of elbow throwing collectors all determined to find what I’m guessing was one particular orange fronted penguin paperback.
For me, the great bookshops are special places. They’re little temples to the art and splendour of a good book. There’s Barter Books up north. I’ve recently been pointed in the direction of The Astley Book Farm near our new house, where I may have spent a few pennies recently. There are also some true, beauties around North Yorkshire. Whitby and Robin Hood's Bay definitely both have one or two that'll leave you with a heavy bag in your grasp and a spellbound head. After one holiday, we came home from Yorkshire with the back seat hidden beneath a piles of book. Oh, what a week that was. There are a few great ones in the backstreets of Leeds and London and, sadly, we recently lost an absolute marvel of a bookshop in Birmingham. I only got to visit it a few times and never did learn its name. It was hidden around the corner from the gleaming face of Selfridges. A small, overstocked labyrinth of a place. You had to move the piles out of the way of the shelves and then remove the extra rows from each shelf as you dug and dug that one book you hoped to find. There are great bookshops pretty much everywhere, apart from Devon. I never did find many in Devon, which was disappointing. I guess it just means I need to look harder next time.
So, save your pennies and ignore the branded, cleaner bookshops on the high street. Let Amazon peddle its wares to the internet bargain hunters for a while and find yourself a great second-hander in your area. Who knows what brilliant books you’ll find waiting for you there. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something unexpected. It’s worth a hunting and braving the dustier editions. After all, that’s where we keep the magic now.