(This is a post from the literaturenetwork back in July 2009. The piece questions some of the things we have lost in the Internet age, a question that drives my PhD research. If I was to write this article today it would be aggressively political. Second hand bookshops are being driven out of business through the combined assault of Amazon and high-street charity shops. While this can easily be ascribed to the march of 'technological progress', the endangered status of the second hand bookshop touches on some very important political issues – for example, fair taxation, local shopping and the importance and financing of art. I've not written that article and probably won't so here's the original…)
The Internet is wonderful thing. So wonderful that it’s easy to forget how much fun buying books in the real world can be.
I love buying things on-line. No matter how strange or obscure the item I want, there always seems to be someone selling it. The most interesting thing I’ve bought recently is a mid-nineties guide to British second hand book shops. This book, by the mysterious Driffield, is long out of date: most of the shops listed that I remember from 15 years back are no more. The guide would likely be little use in navigating present-day second hand bookshops (although I sometimes day-dream about trying).
Instead it reads like a strange volume of speculative fiction, perhaps something Jeff Vandermeer might have devised – maybe drif’s guides are the first examples of paperpunk. Driffield himself has also appeared as a literary character, notably appearing and disappearing in Iain Sinclair’s books (for example, ‘White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings’ and City of Disappearances respectively). He was described by Iain Sinclair as “the punning diarist to a dying book trade”.
Driffield’s guides are full of acronyms (FARTS – Follows you around recommending the stock; GOB – Grand old bore ; KEENON – Keen on stocking if they could get it) and strange obsessions – the link between vegetarian restaurants and book shops, tales of skulduggery and multi-page rants about ‘British Fail’. One edition even claimed Guilford did not exist. Driffield’s frustrations are written up as epic adventure, with wonderful sketches of shops, such as the one where he “discovered how to cure thrush with carrots.”
Reading Drif’s guides and remembering long-lost bookshops brought back the fun I had trawling bookshops as a teenager. I’d sneak away from school and search through basements and shops for treasures, maybe a Michael Moorcock book I’d not seen before or recent hardbacks I couldn’t afford to buy new. I kept a list of the books I wanted to find and was always thrilled when I could cross one off. Looking for books was almost as much fun as reading them – more so when the book failed to meet my expectations.
Buying books in the 21st century is different. Amazon astutely saw that books could be bought without the buyer handling the product and their empire has grown, sweeping away physical bookshops. Over the years Amazon has added more features, one of the most interesting being Amazon Marketplace, which offers new and second hand books from sellers worldwide. Readers can search hundreds, maybe thousands of bookshops with a single web request and cheap copies of out of print books can arrive within days. This, and similar services, have made buying second hand books incredibly easy.
But something has been lost. When ordering books from Amazon, my only communication with the seller is to leave a comment on the feedback page. In real-world bookshops I came to know some of the sellers, and could spend ages chatting while deciding which paperbacks to buy and which I’d risk leaving for next time. And, of course, in real bookshops I’d occasionally find books I’d never expected, the sort of random associations and serendipity you can’t build into recommendation engines.
I’ve not been out trawling second hand bookshops for a long time now. For a start I have less free time: it’s easy to skip school but harder to play truant from a job. The sheer efficiency of Amazon marketplaces has seduced me from the secondhand bookshop. Sometimes I wish I had less money and more time, because then I’d be trawling second-hand bookshops again.
According to Driffield “Book dealing is a form of big-game hunting.” There is more to books than words and I miss questing for books. Borges said that heaven would be a library. I disagree. For me heaven would be an endless, dusty, second hand book-shop.