The second-hand book trade has lost much of its romance and charm, not to mention eccentric establishments and their owners
This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
At the Oxford Book Fair in April, the presence of a hundred exhibitors from all over Britain suggested that Covid had not killed off the antiquarian book trade. But those who buy antiquarian books are not necessarily interested in reading, any more than those who buy hundreds of cases of rare wines are interested in drinking.
The second-hand market — for immediate consumption rather than laying down — is a different matter, as Oxford itself sadly demonstrates. In the 1970s, Blackwell’s second-hand department occupied the whole of the top floor. By 2000, it occupied most of the third floor. Now it shivers forlornly in a few feet of the first floor.
Will Waterstones, Blackwell’s new owners, bother to keep it? One second-hand bookshop after another has closed in Oxford, leaving two admittedly excellent Oxfams, St Philip’s Books opposite the cathedral, a new small outlet in the Covered Market, and the ominously named The Last Bookshop in Jericho. Thornton’s and Robin Waterfield are much missed. The former still sells online, but, although I plead guilty to online buying, that is not the same. It is like eating the menu instead of the food.
Oxford is not alone, of course. In Cambridge, Deighton Bell and Galloway & Porter have vanished, and G. David, like many others, mingles remainders with genuine used books; but Heffers has started a promising second-hand section. In London, Sotheran’s and the shops in Cecil Court continue to cater to the antiquarian trade, but Charing Cross Road had only two shops at the last count. (Skoob, in the Brunswick, is a miraculous survivor).
Hay-on-Wye and Wigtown still exist, and there are pockets of resistance such as York and Carlisle; but the immortal Driffield, whose acerbic Guide to second-hand bookshops in the UK was the browsers’ Baedecker in the 1980s and 1990s, would find few targets for his scorn now. (He had a good rule of thumb when visiting a place for the first time: you should look at the six-volume set of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War which, he maintained, every shop had, and if they wanted more than £10 for it you should leave immediately.)
It was not ever thus. In my childhood, in Brighton in the 1960s, apart from general junkshops which sold Penguins for sixpence (2½p), or a shilling (5p) if you were flush — a new paperback then cost around half a crown (12½p) — there were a dozen excellent establishments, boasting colourfully eccentric proprietors.
There was Mr Silver, a figure straight out of an Angus Wilson short story, somewhat battered and mildewed like his stock, who shuffled home arm-in-arm with his mother every evening. There were Miss Judith Tee and her brother, of the Theatre Bookshop. He looked like Alastair Sim, and Miss Tee looked like Alastair Sim en travestie. They trundled a wheelbarrow, Molly Malone fashion, round all the bring-and-buy sales picking up booty for their tiny Dickensian emporium, where I was often given the key and told to lock up when I had finished browsing.
There was George Sexton (now a café), whose grumpy proprietor hated customers, and took every enquiry as a personal insult. One put up with his lack of bookside manner on account of the chance of a lucky find, but at N. F. Brookes, in Queen’s Road, the books themselves were hated. They were actively maltreated, spread on the floor so that you had to trample over them while the assistant sat smoking foul cigarillos and sneering at you and his wares in equal measure.
There was K. J. Bredon, where the till was looked after by a donnish, bespectacled type who sat reading and listening to classical LPs when not serving. There were also specialist shops. Tall Storeys, in Kemp Town, was unrivalled for art books, and S.P.C.K. had a basement full of second-hand theology for those who wished to bone up on early heresies.
All these might yield the occasional gem: but the Aladdin’s Cave was Holleyman & Treacher of Duke Street, reputedly the largest second-hand bookshop in the south of England — although Howes of Hastings, a Tardis of a shop with a modest frontage but room upon room of books from floor to ceiling, surely surpassed it until it closed in 2008.
Treacher was long gone, but Mr Holleyman, who lived above the shop, was still working when I began to frequent it. Actually, “working” is a euphemism. There were two young men — one willowy and languid, the other square and swarthy — who did the buying and selling from an office in the middle of the ground floor.
What Mr Holleyman did was lend tone. He stood upright, his hands behind his back, his tall, spare figure quietly but tastefully clad, and inclined his head with a gentle smile as one passed, or murmured a greeting to regular customers. He retired (perhaps that should be receded) in 1983, but the shop continued to yield treasures. Eventually, the willowy and languid young man became an etiolated and weary elderly man, and decided he had had enough.
As so often, no buyer could be found, and I made a pilgrimage to the closing-down sale in 1998. Mr Holleyman should have made a return; he was still alive, and, as an erstwhile archaeologist and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, was obviously an expert on the conservation of ancient objects, since he lived to be 93.
From Brighton I moved to Manchester, where there were good shops such as Shaw’s (Police Street) and Gibbs (Charlotte Street), but a less bohemian atmosphere. E. J. Morten, in Didsbury, did not put prices in the books but assessed your gullibility at the till, and thought of a number.
It is better that there should be second-hand shops run by professionals than none at all
McGill’s, near the university, had more character. There was a perpetual suggestion of cabbage soup in the atmosphere, and all the books were wrapped in cellophane to protect the covers — also, perhaps, to keep the cabbage soup at bay. A large dog of indeterminate pedigree slept in front of the counter, and its owner slept behind it. He had courtly manners, however. When you left the shop, whether or not you had bought anything, he would wake up, rise from his chair and say “Goodbye now to you” in wistful tones.
Otherwise, in the 1970s and 1980s, the second-hand book business was becoming just that — a business. For a hint of the old world you would have to go, for instance, over the Pennines to George Kelsall’s in Littleborough, or a tiny shop in Hawes where the door stood open, there was no-one in charge, and you put what you were prepared to pay for a book into a cloth cap on the chair.
Post-Manchester, my next few years were spent in Portsmouth, which was handy for two well-stocked shops near Chichester station, and for Winchester — where Gilbert’s closed long ago, but the Winchester Bookshop survives — and the Petersfield Bookshop (which is also still with us).
Portsmouth itself did not run to literature, but in Southsea I found two agreeably quirky establishments. The Adelphi on Albert Road also sold old waistcoats, which hung from inconvenient places and would flap in one’s face, impeding progress generally. The proprietor, a chatty character, heaped his books on the floor as at N. F. Brookes but did not dislike them. Indeed, he was very fond of them, and in particular of detective fiction, of which he had an encyclopaedic knowledge.
It was just that he never quite got round to tidying the place up, or perhaps he hoped that a passing film crew would be prompted to use the place as a set for The Waistcoat Mystery, or a remake of The Body in the Library. The shop is still trading, so he may be lucky yet.
Then, in Fratton, there was Abacus Books, whose owner would be found playing chess, either against himself or against another customer, sitting in front of a bead curtain which failed to conceal the presence in the vicinity of a pungent stew whose ingredients could only be guessed at, although it would be wiser not to try. They could probably be found in the same cookbook used by McGill.
Before the pandemic, World of Books, the UK’s largest second-hand retailer, estimated that the market was growing by eight to ten per cent each year. One consequence of the enforced isolation during Covid was that many people had the time to weed out their collections, and when restrictions were lifted, Oxford’s Oxfam shops were flooded with so many donations that they had to start an appointment system.
The increase in online buying has meant a reduction in the number of physical outlets, but those that remain have a beadier eye for bargains unsuspected by their owners. The trade has lost much of its charm and romance, and the number of eccentrics has dwindled.
Of course, it is better that there should be second-hand shops run by professionals than none at all, but the ghosts of Mr Silver, Miss Tee, Mr Holleyman and others linger in my memory. Books mattered differently to them, somehow. They were not just running a business; they were conduits of civilisation.
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