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The demise of the second-hand bookshop

Why Oxfam bookshops, as tremendous as they are, may be the end of the second-hand bookseller

In 1973, Graham Greene wrote an introduction to a bookselling friend’s memoir. As Greene was one of the most respected writers of his day, this was no small gesture, but the author was also a committed bibliophile. The book dealer and biographer John Baxter’s memoir A Pound of Paper contains treasurable glimpses of Greene deliberately signing obscure copies of his works in far-off locations, in the certain knowledge that these items would become hugely sought-after rarities, and he remains one of the few serious literary figures who also understood the glamour and romance of the bookselling trade. In his introduction, he openly acknowledged this, writing ‘Secondhand booksellers are the most friendly and most eccentric of all the characters I have known. If I had not been a writer, theirs would have been the profession I would most happily have chosen.’

If Greene was alive today, he would look at his beloved second-hand and antiquarian bookshops with an air of sorrow, leavened with a touch of bewilderment. The recent news that one of Charing Cross’s most famous booksellers, Francis Edwards, was to close after 150 years, maintaining only a presence in Hay-on-Wye, was greeted without the anguish that it might have been otherwise. After all, covid closures are ten a penny these days, and in the era of Amazon and Abebooks, maintaining an expensive shop in central London without regular footfall might seem a folly. Yet the story of Francis Edwards, which had been allied to another shop, Quinto, since 2008, comes to epitomise the decline not only of a certain sort of retail, but sounds the death knell of an entire industry, which, despite or perhaps because of its unworldly and vaguely anachronistic nature, has remained a constant part of many people’s lives and affections for decades.

Francis Edwards first opened a second-hand bookshop on Marylebone High Street in 1855. It was a success, and so in 1912 Edwards’ descendants moved to a new premises at 83 Marylebone High Street, which David Low (in the memoir to which Greene contributed an introduction) described as ‘the most pleasantly designed bookshop anywhere’. It was custom-made to be as beautiful and charming a shop as could be imagined, and it continues that tradition today as the flagship of Daunt Books, scene to many a bibulous book launch of the literati. Yet, as Charing Cross (and its offshoot Cecil Court) became the Mecca for booksellers and purchasers alike, it was inevitable that a relocation had to take place, and, once Francis Edwards merged with Quinto, they established themselves amongst the much-patronised bookshops of central London, even as the seeds of the destruction of the entire industry had been sown fifty miles away.

But it, and the other Oxfam bookshops in Britain, sounded the death knell for other, ‘normal’ bookshops

The Oxfam bookshop on St Giles in Oxford is, for my money, the most likeable and successful of all the many Oxfam bookshops in the country. It is unique in that its stock is not just interesting and desirable, but replenished on a virtually daily basis; it is extremely rare that I walk past its front window and don’t see at least five books that I want to buy immediately. It is especially strong in history, literature and illustrated books, often selling rare and valuable items at surprisingly reasonable prices, even if the big-ticket books, lurking provocatively in a glass case, can sell for many hundreds of pounds. It was founded in 1987 as Oxfam’s first dedicated bookshop, and was opened by the author and barrister John Mortimer; he later returned two decades subsequently to celebrate the shop’s 21st birthday. It is a wonderful place, and I cannot even begin to calculate how much money I have spent there, as a student in the city, a visitor and now a resident. But it, and the other Oxfam bookshops in Britain, sounded the death knell for other, ‘normal’ bookshops.

The reasons why are simple. Every book that the Oxfam bookshop stocks has been donated, meaning firstly that there are no acquisition costs to be borne, and secondly, as the majority of the staff are volunteers, the only costs of employment are that of a manager, who can often be responsible for several different shops. Otherwise, given the charity’s abilities to claim tax relief from the government for rent and bills, it is making a considerably greater amount of profit than any competing bookshop could ever hope to do. Thus, the rest of the bookselling trade, faced with this cuckoo in the nest and the rise of internet availability, faced a simple choice: evolve, or perish. It is a shame that so many shops decided, as if it was pre-ordained, that they would shut their doors and that would be the end of that, thank you very much.

The example of Oxford is typical. For decades, it had one of the widest selections of second-hand and antiquarian bookshops in the country. There was the famous Thornton’s, which had opened on the city’s greatest street, Broad Street, in 1835, and took pleasure in having sold books to everyone from Oscar Wilde and Philip Larkin to David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher. CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were regular customers, and much of Iris Murdoch’s personal library was eventually sold through it after her death. It was owned and staffed by the Thornton family, and the last of them, ‘Young Jack’, could offer stories about WB Yeats praising it as ‘a true bookshop’ (with a dig at nearby Blackwells being more interested in ‘pennies than words’).

Yet by the time that I visited it as a student two decades ago, it was clearly on its last legs. Its stock was overpriced and tired; there were countless examples of dull, battered mid-20th century history and literature for sale, but unless one had a desperate urge to own the collected criticism of Lord David Cecil or AC Bradley, it offered remarkably little for the bibliophile. It eventually closed its doors at the beginning of 2003, and only the closing down sale, in which its stock was sold at heavy discounts, saw customers return in any numbers. It is now a hotel and café, and is surrounded by gift shops selling Harry Potter merchandise.

Such, alas, is the case for much of the contemporary bookshop trade. It is hugely expensive to rent a decent-sized premises in any of the major tourist destinations in this country, with the result that many of the independently owned second-hand bookshops have closed over the past couple of decades, with their proprietors preferring to deal online, or to pursue another occupation altogether. Places such as Bath, Oxford, Cambridge and Stratford-upon-Avon, which once used to offer rich pickings in their hugely diverting bookshops, have now seen most of them disappear entirely, driven away by high rents, a lack of demand and a sense that, in 2020, the second-hand bookshop is somehow inessential. The circle of bibliophile life has meant that many carefully built-up collections and libraries, harvested from now defunct bookshops, are now either given in their entirety to the local Oxfam, or sold off at auction after the richest pickings have been carefully harvested by one of the remaining successful dealers still going.

The circle of bibliophile life has meant that many carefully built-up collections and libraries, harvested from now defunct bookshops, are now either given in their entirety to the local Oxfam or sold off at auction

Still, a glamour remains, even as the trade seems endangered.  One of publishing’s more surprising success stories over the past few years was the bestselling book The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell. It is an account of Bythell’s time as proprietor of the largest bookshop (simply named ‘The Bookshop’) in the ‘National Book Town’ of Wigtown in Scotland, in which he presents himself as a sane (if somewhat grumpy) man beset by eccentrics and the absurd, and those are just his staff. It is hugely entertaining as an account of the everyday goings-on inside a modern-day bookshop, but, as Bythell punctiliously notes, there are always the economic realities of running a shop like his to be borne in mind. Bad weather, something of a perennial issue in Wigtown, can often lead to next to no trade, and it is the dreaded internet that can often drive sales, rather than any amount of casual footfall.

It is possible to read Bythell’s book and be overwhelmed, even terrified, by the amount of effort that running a second-hand bookshop seems to involve. He is forever travelling vast distances to spend considerable amounts of money on buying new stock, only to return to his shop to find that one of his assistants has committed some new outrage and sold a priceless item for next to nothing in a moment of whimsy. Yet those of a romantic disposition might also read The Diary of a Bookseller and its sequel Confessions of a Bookseller and find the whole idea of running a second-hand bookshop both fun and rather inspiring. Wigtown also hosts the country’s only Airbnb bookshop, The Open Book, which enables paying guests the opportunity to run the shop as they wish for a week or two. Although this might sound like hard work, it has been hugely popular with those who fancy their hands at bookselling, and the lengthy waiting list (paused for the time being, of course) is testament to how endlessly appealing the idea of having one’s own shop – even for a couple of weeks – remains.

I have written before about my own long history of book collecting, and occasional dealing. After I finish writing this piece, I shall be heading off to the excellent and hugely knowledgeable rare book department in Blackwells with a couple of recent acquisitions, and see if they might be interested in buying them. I hope so; my own shelves are long since full and my wife tends to look askance at me whenever I walk into a second-hand bookshop, because she knows that the chances of my leaving empty-handed are next to zero. But these shops are a lot sparser in number than they once were, and that seems to me to be a true national loss.

Decades, even centuries, of history and tradition are disappearing because of market forces, and the pandemic that we are all suffering through has sped matters up. So, although I would offer two hearty cheers for the Oxfam bookshops, please try and visit your local book dealer, if you’re still lucky enough to have one. Otherwise, this most eccentric and likeable of trades shows every sign of being annihilated forever, save for the most rarefied of dealers, and this would be a great pity, especially if it were to take place more or less through carelessness, rather than design.

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