Growing up, I read library books, mostly. First, from the mobile library van that came round to the village, two-toned, beige and cream, no mission statement or hard sell. Then I wandered into a bookshop in the Arndale Centre in Headingley that stocked Calder & Boyars books. I bought The Faber Book of Modern Verse there, I think, in 1960-something, with a book token that I’d been given at Christmas, remember book tokens? (Remember libraries?) Most of that book baffled me, some still does, but in a good way.
If I said that I’m a person who can’t pass a bookshop without going in, I’d be lying. I can pass by a Waterstones as easily as a Greggs (because I know without going in what the books are going to taste like?). Even – grumpy-old-man hat – many new independent bookshops are less bookshops than cafés or up-market stationery shops with bookshelves attached. There may be a financial reason for this – I’m thinking of restaurants that offer good food but survive only because of a huge mark-up on the wine – but they are not bookshops. They offer what’s won the recent prizes, and maybe even what’s been on the recent shortlists, and a predictable selection of contemporary fiction. They have poetry shelves that offer Heaney, Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy, a local writer and a few anthologies. They offer cookery and ‘mindfulness’ and sometimes a selection of small press books but this is light fare without what’s come before, icing without a cake. Many new independent bookshops sell not books but lifestyle.
So, the good bookshop: Shakespeare, Cervantes and Brecht for absolute starters. Herrick – I’m immediately suspicious of any bookshop that doesn’t stock Herrick. A wholesome selection of NYRB books. Bolaño, of course, and not just the token one or two. And this, especially: those books that maybe didn’t sell well in their first six months, and maybe even the publisher has lost faith, I want them to be there for me when I get around to them. (Any bookseller who thought a book worth selling at the start, why stop? Keep, surely, at least a copy or two.) ‘But we don’t have enough shelf space’ – well, yes, not enough for everything; but don’t, please, argue lack of shelf space while at the same time parading Moleskine notebooks and Lamy pens and funny greeting cards.
Exemplary bookshops: John Sandoe’s, of course. Albion Beatnik, 34 Walton Street, Oxford (where Patrick Mackie and John Clegg read from their new books, CBe and Carcanet respectively, last Friday). Book & Kitchen, 31 All Saints Road, London. Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace (I haven’t been in there for a year; I need to go back). I don’t see how anyone can spend time in these places – half an hour minimum: how much time do you allow for visiting an art gallery? – without exiting with some wonderful book(s) they didn’t even know they needed when they went in.
What distinguishes the above bookshops is (now that I’ve mentioned art galleries) that their stock is curated (new word for an old thing). Knowledge (decades of it), selection (of course, again, not everything), enthusiasm (not the pushy kind), idiosyncrasy (part of the job description). Nothing puts me off buying a book more than a mass display of a single title (often including ‘signed copies’ – but that’s a separate post). Nothing makes me want to buy a book more than finding a single copy of, say, a book that came out a few years ago and I remember thinking sounds interesting but not acting on that and here, now, it still is, just for me.
The relationship between many new independent bookshops and local charity shops selling books, especially the Oxfam ones, is fraught. Oxfam – more by accident than design, but they’re now pretty canny about this – have got something right. They’re not bookshops proper, but they have terrific stock. Most of my book-buying is done in Oxfam shops. I’ll pass by a Waterstones but not an Oxfam bookshop. No, don’t wait, you go on, I’ll meet you in the café in half an hour.