Last week, I used my recent holiday in Galloway as a perfect excuse to update an older post about King Arthur, first published four years ago when this site had a much, much smaller following than it does now. This week, I’m doing a similar exercise with an even older post, from the very early days of the blog back in 2012. I know that a hardy few of you have been following ever since then, and that an even smaller number of you are, indeed, still at liberty. However, a break which involved visits to not one but two of the United Kingdom’s ‘booktowns’ within the space of a week provides me with an obvious excuse and opportunity to re-post my earlier musings on the theme of secondhand bookshops, supplemented by a significant amount of new text. In the post that follows, therefore, everything in red is new;* and because the new material has expanded it considerably, I’m splitting it into two this week, with the second part to come on Thursday.
In other news, tomorrow night I’ll be at the annual Christmas dinner of the Historical Writers Association in London, which coincides neatly with my being very close to completing the first of my new Tudor naval stories for Endeavour Ink. Six days should be just about enough time for me to recover sufficiently from the dinner to compose a new post – and if all goes to plan, I’ll link the two things and talk about one of the most important aspects of how historical novelists go about their business.
In the meantime, though, let’s open the strangely sticky door, enter the chaotic premises behind it, smell the unmistakeable and glorious odour of old books, wonder just what on earth the other smells in the building could be, check just how grumpy/eccentric/totally barking the owner is, step carefully past the tottering piles of books stacked randomly in every nook and cranny, and begin one of the most pleasurable activities a human being can enjoy while keeping his or her clothes on, namely browsing the shelves of a good old-fashioned secondhand bookshop.
A strange thing happens to me in secondhand bookshops these days. Time was when I couldn’t go into one without leaving laden down with books. Now, though, I invariably browse the shelves and think ‘got that…got that…don’t need that…got that…’. I used to have a lengthy ‘wants list’ on Abebooks, but now it’s virtually empty. So at some point in the last few years, I clearly attained a bookish version of a state of stasis. There are three obvious reasons for this.
Firstly, I’ve now finally got all the books I need for my day-to-day research on my own shelves – and plenty more besides. Calendars of State Papers, Domestic? Check – vast green volumes, most of which I bought for a pittance in Hay-on-Wye many years ago. Even the incredibly rare Historical Manuscripts Commission Ormonde Manuscripts, New Series – all eight huge volumes worth? Check – bought from a bookshop in Galway a few years ago, with yours truly getting in just before two other potential purchasers who were slightly less quick off the mark. And so on: the complete Pepys Diary, dozens of Navy Records Society volumes, etcetera, etcetera.
Secondly, my switch to becoming primarily a writer of fiction means I don’t need so many really obscure books anyway: at the end of the day, do I really, really need all those volumes of HMC Ormonde? Ah, but then, one of the ideas on the ‘unbelievably long term possible projects list’ is a biography of Thomas, Earl of Ossory, for which the HMC volumes would be essential, so they’d better stay just in case I decide to write that book in 10 years time…
Thirdly, of course, there’s the space issue. The Lair (aka my office) has reached a state of stasis by default: it’s full. There’s an Overflow Lair in the house, and that’s almost full too. Not to mention the stuff that’s been relegated to the loft. So there’s the concern that just one more book, even the slimmest paperback, would have an effect similar to that last ‘waffer-thin mint’ on Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life; which is one reason why quite a few, but still by no means all, of my purchases in the category ‘mindless fiction to chill out to’ go onto the Kindle. Hang on, though. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, are now all online…as are the Navy Records Society volumes…so couldn’t I free up a huge amount of shelf space and make a fair bit of money by getting rid of them? Ah, but they look so good on the shelves…and there’s something particularly satisfying about opening an ancient tome to check a reference in it…and they’re like old friends, really…
(You may be wondering how I wrote that last paragraph five years ago, and yet still managed to come back from the week before last’s trip to Scotland with a grand total of *ahem* books. Yes, I’m still wondering that, too…)
But there’s another factor that partly explains the drying up of the once-constant flow of books into my tender loving care and onto my straining bookshelves. In the last fifteen years or so, many of my favourite secondhand bookshops have bitten the dust. There used to be a glorious one in Stourport-on-Severn, the Worcestershire canal town from which one set of my great-grandparents hailed, which for some reason always had a terrific range of naval books and really good fiction first editions in nearly mint condition. There was another in Bridge of Allan near Stirling, where I picked up for a song many of the books upon which I based much of the research for Blood of Kings. Less salubrious, but always worth spending an hour in, was the ramshackle old bookshop in Dillwyn Street, Swansea, which had a vast, dark, damp back room, truly a land that Health and Safety forgot, where I picked up many classic titles, some of which were even free of mould; a few have survived long enough to still find a place on my shelves today, notably the more obscure sequels to The Three Musketeers, such as Louise de la Valliere and The Viscomte de Bragelonne.
But enough nostalgia; not only is the past a foreign country, you can’t obtain an entry visa for love nor money. There are still some amazing secondhand bookshops around the country, though, and also some distinctly odd ones. There’s the one in Tenby which is simply impossible to enter if literally one other person is browsing the shelves by the door; the books are piled so high, and so precariously, that the skeleton of a browser who was crushed by a fall of books in 1993 is said still to lie somewhere in the British Topography section. Admittedly, I’ve never been to the one in Hawes in North Yorkshire, where the owner attracted national publicity by charging browsers 50p just to come into the shop, but last week I revisited the Bookshop in Wigtown, a big favourite of mine (many bookshops provide comfy chairs; this one has a gallery with a bed), where the owner is famous for satirising or denigrating his customers on social media even when they’re still in the shop. Indeed, he’s even written a book which draws upon said comments – I’m just hoping I’m not in it…
Anyway, in the original version of this post, I concluded with a ‘top three’ of my favourite secondhand bookshops. In Part 2, which I’ll publish on Thursday, I’ll provide an updated and expanded version, i.e. a ‘top five’. Detached and objective? Nope – totally subjective and completely irrational. Watch this space!
* A select few of my readers will know exactly why having the font colours of this post as black and red is particularly pleasing to me.