Firsthand Experience, Secondhand Books

Entering a secondhand bookseller's is an act of calculated temerity. Risky.

"Where is human nature so weak as in the book-store!" wrote Henry Ward Beecher.

He was alluding to the way one falls irretrievably for a book one has not the slightest wedge of shelf-space for at home - a book that can be bought only by pawning one's sneakers. The urgency is compelling: Buy it now or you'll never see it again.

It is easy to bolster this with some poignant case history; for me, usually, it is the Picasso linocuts book.

There, in the secondhand department of John Smith's in Glasgow, I held it in my very own hands. I purred louder with each turn of the page. But its exorbitant price I pondered at length. I put it tenderly back on the shelf behind the glass. Came back next day and looked again.

Then I did a foolish thing. I went to another rare-book store in town and mentioned, in passing, the price of the book at Smith's.

"Oh," said the proprietor, "far too much. Don't buy it. I'll get you a copy at half the price."

He never has. And someone else bought the book from his rival. I have not seen it anywhere since.

If this is not a good enough argument for buying any book you want badly, then there is always Desiderius Erasmus, who said: "When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes." A sound bloke, Desid.

This particular risk, however, is not what I am talking about. Even more unsettling is what one might call the idiosyncrasy of booksellers.

They are a peculiar people.

Most of them charmingly admit this, but such self-knowledge serves only as self-encouragement.

I recall one in Cambridge, England. A notice on his door shouts: "I do not sell student texts. DON'T EVEN ASK!"

The same man refuses to buy a French book of any kind, ever. "The French do not know how to make books," is his stern dictum. When I told another bookman about this, he expressed outrage. "My goodness!" he exclaimed. "Mind you," he added, afterthoughtfully, "he's quite right."

Some booksellers have to be awakened out of deep sleep if you want one of their books. Others (there is one in Edinburgh) are always so deep in conversation that you have to wait a long time for a gap - and even then they may accept your check, bag your book, and wave goodbye without noticing you at all.

This book chap is one of my current favorites. On my second visit, I found him striding violently about between the piles of books, holding forth. Every syllable was an indignant splutter. "They - come up here - from the south," he was exclaiming "and because they are English, and because they went to public school, they treat us like peasant provincials who know nothing! How dare they? How dare they?"

He subsided finally. As quietly as I could I remarked: "I wonder if you would in fact sell me a book. I am both English and public-school educated."

He grinned broadly. "So am I," he said. Then: "Mind you: The public school I went to was somewhat 'different.' "


"Manchester Grammar School."

"Ah," I chuckled knowingly, remembering an old friend who harked from the same establishment and was just as opinionated and vocal.

"And," he went on, "we were taught, above all, tolerance."

"Of course," I said.

He let me buy a couple of books.

Yesterday I bravely broached a bookshop new to me. The owner was white-haired and looked amiable. He seemed busy. I nosed among the stacks.

There are various procedural rules you need to know in secondhanders.

One is: Never expect to find the book you are looking for.

As ever, the rule applied.

The second rule is: Don't ask the bookseller if he has a copy of the book you are looking for. This can be a very unsafe question. The answer invariably will be "No," but this negative can take a number of forms, all discombobulating. Here are some:

1. "I think I saw it once - but not for years."

2. "I am just sitting in for the owner. I don't know about his stock."

3. "If you can't see it on the shelves, I do not have it." (Subtext: "What do you have eyes for?")

4. "I'm sorry, I am about to close."

The book I wanted yesterday (I need it for my work - honest) was published in 1981 and is called - as I told the white-haired gentleman, thereby breaking Rule No. 2 - "Japonism."

From a sanguine benevolence he metamorphosed instantly into an opinionated hobbyhorse.

"Never seen or heard of it! I don't like the sound of it at all. In fact, anything ending in '-ism' I do not like : monetary-ism, femin-ism, commun-ism, conservat-ism - think about it! What on earth is Japon-ism?" And he sat down again promptly, as if this ended the matter.

Afterward I wished I had thought of adding to his list: "What about telev-ism?"

Instead, I tried to explain Japonism. "Well, you know, it is the word for the influence of Japanese art on Western art after the opening up of Japan in 1853. Perhaps it sounds better in French - 'Japonisme'?"

He melted. We chatted for about an hour. We aired our pet theories and opinions, setting the world to rights. We parted, eventually, friends.

"Nice to meet you," he said, "come again."

BUT this was not before this bookseller had told me two things that seem to sum up the paradoxical truculence and good humor of his kind.

"You know," he said, "the thing that really gets me is when people come in and say: 'Do you buy books?' I mean - what do they think I do? I usually say: 'Only the ones I can't steal.' And either they leave in shock or laugh. Do I buy books!"

The other thing was a story.

"I'll tell you the kind of happening typical of this shop. A young Malaysian woman came in with a friend. She looked 'round with this delight on her face. 'Oh!' she said, 'this is marvelous! It reminds me of a story I read as a child. About a bookshop, like this. Filled everywhere with books. And it had an old white-haired man in it. And he sold magic books!'

"So," he continued, "I immediately reached behind me for this book - and I said to her, 'You mean magic - like - this?' And I opened it up."

He took it down and opened it up for me, too. Out of its pages sprang up, like a jack-in-the-box, an exotic, enchanted fairy-tale palace with onion turrets, set in a bright garden. And high above its vivid red roof flew a leaping horse and rider.

"She gasped and fell about laughing with surprise and wonder," he said. "It was the first time she had seen a pop-up book."

I hadn't asked him if he had any pop-up books. But as it happened, apart from "Japonism," I was also on the hunt for "Pop-up-ism."

"It is going to a good home," I assured him as he put it in a bag for me.

(I need it for my work - honest.)

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