Sunday, 29 September 2013

Book-buying: my own habits, for better or worse

Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves is opening a new bookshop in Nottingham. Brave, foolhardy, generous man: I wish him all the good fortune going. Here, a brief and incomplete survey of my own book-buying habits.

Hardbacks (new ones), no. They are not of my social class; they probably have servants. They are like SUVs or top-of-the-range Audis or BMWs and prompt a similar mild form of class hatred: if I am in slow-moving traffic and one of those cars is trying to filter in from the left, I will not let them in; an old car, on the other hand – I have a particular soft spot for 1980s (I think) Saabs – I will invariably wave in. (I am, by the way, the cause of accidents waiting to happen: I will happily stop and wave through a 1980s Saab that wants to turn right in front of me, thereby placing it on a collision course with a motorbike speeding up on my outside or a bike on my inside.)

A slightly odd consequence of not buying hardbacks is that when, for example, a new James Salter novel comes out, I know what what I will be reading a year from now. (The gap between hardback and paperback is now rarely as long as that, but the point still holds.)

I buy more from second-hand bookshops than I do from shops selling new books. One reason is that by the time I get round to wanting to read certain books, they are no longer in stock in the regular shops: try looking for a book published a year ago, less, in Waterstones. (One of the joys of John Sandoe’s, by contrast, is that they do keep in stock many titles that other shops will have returned to make way for the new ones. Even better news: John Sandoe’s is expanding into the next-door premises.)

The range of books on the shelves of a decent second-hand bookshop is also more eclectic, eccentric even, than the range in regular bookshops, which is essential for making discoveries (e.g., on my Desert Island bookshelf, Gianni Celati, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Lê Thi Diem Thúy, many others; and Lydia Davis years before she became flavour of the month).

The other reason I favour second-hand shops, of course, is that the books are cheaper. But this is not always an economy: I’ll often buy three books from a second-hand shop because I’m quite interested in them (and end up not reading two of them) rather than one new book that I’m really interested in.

Obligation. If I’ve had a merry conversation with a bookseller, I do feel under some obligation to buy something before leaving. Otherwise he/she has given up half an hour of their working day for no financial recompense at all. A token of respect for the place and for the trade.

A sense of being put under obligation may be behind my not attending many readings (the other reason, as mentioned in a recent post, being that I don’t generally enjoy readings anyway). At readings, books are usually for sale. Buying a copy may be considered a second – in addition to simply turning up – means of expressing support for the author, especially if I’ve had a free glass of wine or two … But there is this frequent difficulty, that liking a person doesn’t necessarily correlate with liking what they write.

I don’t – though there are exceptions to this, there must be – buy a book because I’ve read a good review it. Does anyone? Apparently yes. I do buy because of word-of-mouth, personal recommendations.

Impulse buying. I do this quite often. (See second-hand bookshops, above.) Browsing, I’ll pick a book from the poetry shelves, for example, and buy on the strength of the most wonderful poem on page 57. This invariably (I exaggerate) turns out to be only poem I like in the whole book. If I’m in a buoyant and relaxed mood, I’ll buy a book that in a more humdrum mood I’d have passed on. I’ll buy a book that puts me in mind of someone I like, and give it to them. I also buy magazines on impulse: because there are one-and-a-half items on the contents page I want to read, or because it contains a stunning photograph of some yaks in Mongolia I suddenly decide I cannot live without.

Online: Amazon no, Abe Books and the Book Depository yes. I know this doesn’t make watertight sense, given that the two latter are in fact owned by the former, but still.

Given the choice between a US and a British edition of a book, I’ll usually buy the US edition, even if it costs a bit more. Because they’re nicer.

I don’t think I’d ever buy a book with a film tie-in cover. Or with a cover featuring a swastika, a leprechaun, a very cute animal, etc; or with a sticker that I can’t peel off. Nor any of the Faber Finds books (first series; they have now moved on, thank god, from that hideous design and font). Nor a book with a foreword by the Duke of Edinburgh, Jeremy Clarkson or Theresa May. Nor any book published by the Church of Scientology (even though it might be very finely designed; but it wouldn’t be). Nor a book whose text is too black, smudged, cramped or otherwise wholly reader-unfriendly (even if I actually want to read that book). I’m picky. I’m sensitive.

Swapping – not exactly book buying, but maybe here’s the place to say that if you want one of the books I publish, or even have written, please do not offer to swap one of your own books for it rather than buying outright. A refusal may cause offence. I may even prefer to give you the book. Though I'd rather you bought it.


Anonymous said...

My expectation of second-hand prices haven't kept pace with reality. In central London bookshops - and the low-rent charity second-hand shops which are slowly superseding them - a modern paperback can be £4, which seems rather a lot given a new copy can often be got online for not much more...
I still expect to be able to pick them up for a couple of quid a most, and so to walk out with a nice little pile for a tenner.

Anonymous said...

You've not mentioned Judd Books near St Pancras...wonderful new books at unbelievable prices. But maybe it should be kept secret?

charles said...

But still some bargains. An early Deborah Levy novel for £1.50 in Notting Hill last week. A couple of months ago, a 1928 Faber edition, maybe first edition, of Pound's Selected Poems, intro by TSE, first bought by LC Knights in Oxford in 1930,for £3 - from a pavement box around the corner from Judd Books.