Avoiding bookstores

On Tuesday this week my wife and I took the day off for trip to the countryside. There were no bookstores on the agenda. We planned to visit two rural towns we knew and go for a bike ride. I was not looking for books, did not want to buy any books, and meant to have a good bike ride followed by a cold beer before heading home. So I was surprised that, by the time we were heading home, I could count ten bookstores that I had been to that day, and I had four books weighing down my backpack. This is how the day went.

First bookstore We arrived in town and went our separate ways, planning to meet up in forty-five minutes. I had noticed, as we drove into town, that the used bookstore on the outskirts had an open sign, so I dropped in. I had been here before, but have never bought anything, and I often wonder how it manages to remain open. I can only assume it sells substantial amounts online. The building is old and does not appear well maintained. When I open the door I notice a smell of dampness, though none of the books appear damaged. The lighting is poor, but the large front windows compensate for that. It has many of the usual sections (travel, literature, classics, fishing), and it is easy to navigate the space. But it feels unkempt and the books do not look interesting. The owner or a clerk came down when he heard the bell over the door, but he did not speak to me. The phone rang at the same time, and he spent the next ten minutes negotiating the sale of an unidentified item which was certainly not a book. A few minutes after the call I heard the sound of snoring from behind the desk, though he appeared to be awake. 

Second bookstore Walking back into town I passed a small window full of books. Inside there were three rooms, one leading on to the next, and a middle-aged man stocking the shelves. The shop is well light and inviting. At first it appears to be only new books for sale, but browsing the titles it becomes evident that used books in good condition are stocked in with the new publications. It also becomes apparent from the titles that the shop owners have an interest in politics and recent events. There is a clear liberal leaning in the material, but scattered among the books are authors like Yiannopoulos. This is not a place where only one voice is heard. As well as the politics, there are sections on film, literature and music. Like the previous bookstore, it has a strong identity, but this identity is created by the titles available, all of which appear fresh and appealing. This is where I bought the first book of the day, Beethoven for a Later Day by Edward Dusinberre.

Third bookstore After rejoining Eirian, she noticed an antique store near the car, and I remembered another bookstore across the street. I had seen it many times, but never visited because it was clearly a store about fishing. I last caught a fish in 1984 and it was too small so I had to throw it back. However, while Eirian visited the antiques, I dropped in and it was wonderful. Like the second store, there were three rooms, each full of books. All the books here were about fishing or outdoor sports, and they made me want to be interested. It was also, despite its small size, full of people working with books — cataloging, shelving, packing. The woman shelving smiled at me but left me alone. It is difficult to understand why I liked the place so much since I have no interest in the topic it was obsessed with.  I felt very comfortable there. There was clear respect for the books and admirable breadth of content. It was professionally presented and (I suspect) managed. Being there was akin to watching a craftsman work; the workmanship was excellent. I bought two books, the only two I could find that were not about fishing: two registers of UK book dealers in the 1980s.

Fourth bookstore Returning to the car, I slipped the two volumes quietly into the back seat, hoping Eirian would not notice I’d now bought three books, and we drove on to the start of our bike ride. We reached the next town on our bikes, and stopped in to a museum. Before browsing the exhibitions, which were excellent, we stopped in the museum bookshop. I always expect a museum bookshop to have a mix of popular and academic books on the subject, and it makes sense to me that I would find texts there that do not normally grace the shelves of a general bookstore. I was disappointed here. The books for sale were marginally about the museum’s focus, but appeared to be mostly targeted at local tourists — general interest texts about the area, as well as general interest books about the museum’s subject. I was looking for a book that I would identify with that museum, that cultural experience, but there was nothing. So we went on to the exhibit which, as I mentioned, was excellent.

Fifth bookstore Walking downtown, my wife saw a read ceramic dragon in a window. The store described itself as Books and Other Things, and the stock was in truth about equally distributed between the two. The books, however, were a random collection of second-hand fiction and miscellaneous titles. There was no apparent selection or quality assessment process, and nothing I could not have found in a yard sale or charity shop.

Sixth bookstore We were in Wales, and we stopped in to the Welsh medium bookstore. This time I had a secret agenda. My daughter recently published a collection of poetry. I stopped in the shop to make certain they still had copies for sale, and when I found them I moved them to a more visible location.

Seventh bookstore This time we stopped for lunch. It had gotten to be a late lunch, but we found a well-light restaurant with excellent cakes for dessert and some good beer. The restaurant had a book room, stocked with overflow a local bookstore. I only stopped there for a moment, but spotted a book by T. Ifor Rees, a Welsh diplomat, author and translator. It was a clean, solid volume, a photographic essay of his travels around Mexico in the 1950s, and it was only £4. My fourth book.

Eighth bookstore I can only claim partial credit for this one. It was a major book chain with a coffee shop, and I was mostly there for the coffee.

Ninth bookstore Across the street from the chain was the charity bookstore, another clean well-lighted place with books carefully shelved and ordered by subject. In some ways it was the perfect example of a used bookstore: good lighting, stock was cared for and obviously changed often, easy to navigate. But it lacks the soul of a bookstore. The charity running it accepts what books are offered and there is no curation, no design, no choice in the crafting of its inventory. Certainly you know you can find bargains there, but it fails to rise above the level of the bargain bin. I would return in the hope of finding a book, but not because I wanted to be there. (This contrasts strongly with the second store, where I would not expect to find a book (though in fact I found two) but I would enjoy being there.)

Tenth bookstore As we were on our way back to our bikes, our daughter phoned and Eirian mentioned I had bought the book by T. Ifor Rees. As luck would have it, she had been searching for books by Rees; could we return to the bookstore and see if they had anymore. So Eirian went back to the restaurant, and I went to the store itself. It was an old building with three floors of books stacked to the ceilings. Many subjects, each one stocked to overflowing. The books on the shelves were kept neat and tidy, and there were new ones mixed with the used in one room. Each room or rickety staircase led to other rooms and spaces. You quickly become lost, and only find the way back by following subjects like way-markers through the space. It is impossible to proceed forward without frequent stops to pick up a volume to identify its title or author. Anything might be in those piles and shelves. I asked the young clerk about T. Ifor Rees, and he assured me there were copies in the top floor. He set me to the travel section on the ground floor to search while he went to retrieve them. He eventually returned with books by Gornowy Rees, and apologized for mixing the names. He had no T. Ifor Rees at the moment. Eirian arrived then, getting me out before I had time to buy a book on the anthropocene.

On an afternoon not searching for books, it proved impossible to avoid them. If we had been in a city, this would have been naturally expected, but we were not in the center of large populations. Each of these stores had its own ethos, each was what John Agnew refers to as a “meaningful location”, defined by its physicality and its relationship to books, to its customers and to its locale.

I'd like to hear any thoughts you have on this.