It has been observed of me that that my understanding of English provincial towns is constructed primarily from the trajectory from the car park to the Book Shop. In the case of multiple shops, once the pattern has been established, I am at liberty to vary the spatial options.
In the approach work is the secret of fulfillment. While appearing distracted by street furniture or some Gothic nook, it is possible for the Book Buyer to rehearse (well in advance) where the most likely books are located. In my case it was where the art and design stock were. The expensive sure fire items (Rackham, Folio Society Harry Potter, Hunting and Fishing are within the glare of the owner behind the till. Religion and philosophy are on the upper landing, perhaps along with the damp stained paperbacks.
Visiting the shop with a friend unfamiliar with its layout is always a tricky problem. The worst that can happen is that the greed driveds you to push past your companion, lurch into the shop, turn right and hit the good stuff before your pal is over the threshold.
A superior strategy guaranteed to preserve friendship and respect is to usher the companion in first, and let him scan the shelves. In your mind you know the art monographs are in the back room, left. Be solicitous and wander off as if distracted. This allows you to extract the best titles and spirit them to the counter before being spotted. Don’t ever curb that piling of the counter. Books can always be removed as if the sheer quality of the stock has blinded you to the financial realities. The Seller will be happy and your companion will see a second chance at acquisitions.
FIRST PURCHASE This is important to quell the initial anticipation of entering the shop. At the back of your mind the possibility of walking away without a single purchase can cloud the judgment, even truncate the passing of Time. Early on I recommend spiriting a possible purchase to the counter just to settle the nerves. In this way you reassure the Seller you are serious and not just avoiding the rain. Where there is choice, there is currency, and you enter into a close and flirty compact with the Suspicious OverlOrd of the Book Stock.
After this symbolic act, a clear statement of intent to all witnesses, the Buyer’s perceptions are correspondingly sharpened, and most importantly considerable optimism is generated against all the odds of dull bindings and piles of Reader’ Digest Condensed Books piled against the Doorway. A second nominal purchase establishes a clear plateau of acquisition ahead. I have once turned and walked with my purchases after the third book, but it left a hollow feeling.
A DECENT HAUL, DREAM AND REALITY
Let’s concentrate on a decent haul, or that rarest of experiences, too many titles to carry back to the car. In a dream many years ago I travelled alone to the West Coast of Ireland. Treading a path through the Churchyard is usually the beginning of some tale of terror or instance of inadequacy. On this occasion, I saw a shop’s door set back from the porch, and a dull glitter of bottle glass in the window. To extend the clichés, my dream allowed me in, as a brass bell vibrated on a spirtal of wire. For once the owner beckoned me in encouragingly, and, throwing his arms wide, showed me racks of books and magazines, boxed pamphlets, elephants of coloured aquatint insect plates, and signed prints by Francisco Goya.
Preserving my composure I carried pile after pile to the counter, and suffered only mild and jovial teasing from the be-whiskered leprechaun. At this stage you are perhaps anticipating my distress when I woke from the dream. You underestimate me. I knew all along it was a dream, a mere readjustment of tensions in the brain. The characteristic features of the dream were pretty old hat, I thought as I carried rolls of hand coloured maps of inland China to the counter. The owner was a sort of Brigadoon character with a grimy collar to his fawn shirt, and a long quill behind his ears.
Such was the pleasing richness of the dream, I was willing to forgive myself certain lapses of taste. An eighteenth century binding was a composite rather than a particular. The Grandfather Clock was ornate but its pendulum was excessively large and the size of a soup plate. Any careful consideration would see how impractical this was as a narrative accessory. My mind was, of course, focused on the heady delights of the Day’s Haul. As I leant casually against the Chest of Artists’ Prints priced at fifteen pounds, I realized my time was fast diminishing in Dreamtime. I can recall he sequence of the volumes selected to this day. I suspect the Dream Shop Keeper knew his stock was safe. After waking, I reckoned he shrugged his shoulders and returned every volume to the shelf, and didn’t even have to change the absurdly low prices. From Glocca Morra comes the next sap making his way with glittering eyes and hanging jaw to the shop door with the tinkling bell.
The Irish dream helped me establish was what the Good Day in the Book Shop would look like. Less satisfactory dreams involve the anxiety of losing books after purchase, mysterious changes of title and content, and a perennial search for books abandoned at various places of work. The function of these dreams is to combat any solid confidence in your ability and to confront yourself with the shifting nature of reality. Books actually bought in haste when I am in real but unfamiliar territory can shape shift at the slightest pretext. In between purchase and loading in the car, titles on the spine can shuffle words and unsightly signatures appear soundlessly over the titlepage. What looked like Gladstone’s signature was clearly Gladys Stone using a leaky pen. Promising inserts and Stevengraphs vaporise before your eyes into grease stained bookmarks smelling of cheese. What was a landscape etching on purchase, became, on closer inspection, a sheet of musical notation with Nelsonian cartouche. The year 1680, upon which hope was pinned, has in a better light revealed itself to be 1860, and utterly pointless. The wallet of maps is empty and fifteen pages from another publication are bound upside down
The wise collector will build protocol and unrealities into any adequate buying experience, a test for control of the emotions. But, as I used to say regularly to artists at tutorial, what is the best that can happen?
REAL ENCOUNTERS WITH PROMISING STOCK.
First of all you have to arrive early, as the blind is rolled up and the sign says OPEN. You even get to help unload the last book from the cardboard box onto the shelf. “Right” says the Owner, “Thanks for that. I bought them yesterday. Priced them this morning. They won’t sell. And I don’t know about the subject anyway.”
This has happened twice in Norwich; firstly when the Library of E.H.Shackleton the East Anglian white witch was sold by Thomas Crowe; secondly was when the library of the Punch film reviewer Richard Hallett appeared at John Ellis’ shop.
I am wary of Triumphalism here; shades of the Giant Perch, the Van Gogh in the junk shop window. Better I address the individual book shops which were scenes of that Triumph, because the conduit through which the book appeared in my life, has governed how I feel now about the books that surround me.
In the same way as I have never, never stolen a book, I count the location and the agent vital to the character of the book. A stolen book could never nbe enjoyed, shown to any one else, because the affront would be raw to my conscience in perpetuity. Opening the covers would bring back my shifty behaviour, my biting of my tongue, my puny distractions, and the suspicion that my behavior was so outlandish it was easily seen and remembered. That dealer would therefore be astounded at my ham fisted theft, reduced to contempt by my clear dishonesty, and swear to settle the scores at any time before I died. I might open the book to demonstrate a point to a student of illustration, and he/she would find clear evidence how I came by the book. Perhaps he/she was in some way related to the Bookseller, a parent and friend. And at family feasts everybody would be told how a much loved book was crudely snatched by a drooling overweight customer who would be settled with in due course. The student would recognize the exact configuration and my career in Higher Education was over, and any dream of starting my own Bookshop shattered.
Surveying the Book Dealers with whom I have dealt over my lifetime, I could no more cross them, than I could have punched them in the ear and stolen their till. I found it impossible to argue with these stalwarts of the trade. I felt humbled by their stewardship of a building full of books and the like. No matter how churlish or whimsical they were, I was my lot to accept them as characters in the Golden and Multi-Layered Soap Opera of my Bibliomania. There was no area of my life in which my imagination was so easily allowed to roam, free to speculate on the relationship between Information and the Human Mind.