Blog 31: Working in a Second Hand Bookshop

November 30, 2016

I have recently read George Orwell’s essay ‘Bookshop Memories’ – the cynic in me was delighted. I’ve been working in a second hand bookshop part-time for the past couple of months and even though I haven’t come across all the types of customers Orwell describes, it’s safe to say I had little trouble imagining them.

I can understand honestly Orwell’s frustrations, but I think his account is somewhat unfair and not quite so accurate nowadays, though I guess time may change my mind. I do believe that you have to be a certain kind of person to enjoy working with books, and although I’d struggle to describe that type of person, even to myself, I can tell you what type of person it most definitely isn’t.

For fair comparison, there are differences between the bookshop ‘Booklover’s Corner’ which Orwell worked in and the bookshop that I have been working in. From the few pictures scattered over the internet, I think Booklover’s Corner was a damn site smaller for starters; the bookshop I work in has over 70,000 books and is easily the size of four smaller bookshops. Another difference is that Booklover’s Corner was in London with presumably more footfall and customers, whereas the bookshop I work in is in a small, northern, rural town.

Personally, I’ve found working in a second hand bookshop to be a pleasurable and rewarding experience. As a novice there is so much to learn, indeed many surprising things. For instance; did you know that early books had plain dustjackets? Or that books used to be sent to bookshops in original boards (which have an uncanny resemblance to cardboard), and then were put into custom bindings later? Or that the red dye used to colour most book bindings fades considerably more than any other colour? (I recommend that you put a red book in a shady spot). Or that sometimes the edges of pages in older books have a rough, fluffy appearance because they were uncut edges (deckle edges)? No? I didn’t know any of this either until just recently.

The owners and employees at the bookshop have a wealth of knowledge between them that would astound the average person. Knowledge that can only really be gained through experience and much time reading. I’ve learnt more about the world and history by talking to these kind people than I ever did at school. Did you know that Saudi Arabia gets its name from the Saud royal family? (I guess that one is more obvious) or that a ‘special agreement’ was made between America and the Saud family whereby America offer protection in exchange for access to oil? I didn’t know any of this and it certainly wasn’t something taught in school, perhaps I should read more books? Or perhaps history lessons need to focus on more than just WW2 and how Henry VIII got rid of his wives.

Unlike Orwell’s adversity to customers, customers are generally friendly and intelligent, even if they are only venturing in to escape the weather, kill some time or just to purchase a £1.50 coffee. The bookshop is visited by all sorts of customers from all age groups, though youngsters tend not to be too keen on the heating system, which sometimes sounds like a dragon at the back of the shop. The most popular type of customer is by far the middle-aged and elderly, many of whom enjoy trekking across the countryside. The bookshop is also important to those with disabilities and health issues.

Like Booklover’s Corner who stocked stamps and cards much to Orwell’s displeasure, the bookshop I have been working in also has different, additional stock. Maps, postcards and cards are the most popular alternative purchases. On the book front, history is a good seller and autobiographies about normal people with specific professions (like Midwifery or the Shepherdess Amanda Owen) are also popular. Agatha Christie is amongst one of the sought-after authors and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye practically flies out. If you’re wondering about antiquarian books, then early editions of Penguin and Lady Bird are becoming increasing popular. The price of an antiquarian book can rise considerably if they have original dustjackets, but don’t be fooled into thinking that they must be first editions, some of the scarcest antiquarian books are actually later editions.

Sadly, the owners of the bookshop have noted a considerable decline in second hand bookshops up and down the country and estimate that over half have closed down in the last decade. It’s safe to assume that eBooks and Amazon play a part in this decline and I daresay politics may accelerate this in the near future. From my somewhat limited experience, younger generations do not appear to visit second hand bookshops often, if at all. I have started to wonder if there is a way to appeal to younger customers, and what the future holds for bookshops given the rise of social media and online sales. I sincerely hope that bookshops do not completely disappear from the high street, but I do believe that the traditional bookshop needs to evolve. Purely on an educational level, book people are smart and people should read. Perhaps, when and if virtual reality becomes the norm, future bookshops will continue to exist in a virtual sense instead. What do you think?

‘A reader lives a thousands lives before he dies’ – George R. R. Martin