Books For All

Somewhere in the western world is the dream bookshop; the shelves are full of beautiful, clean antique books that have not been attacked by worms, sunlight, librarians or housewives, there are no dog-eared paperbacks, and, although there are books we have longed to find at prices we can afford, there are also books; old, but new to us, that we did not know existed. It must exist, because we know what it is like: a little dusty, deserted and off the beaten track, seldom frequented, with several rooms and many quiet corners, where we can examine the books undisturbed.

The other day I was in Any Amount of Books, in the Charing Cross Road. It is not the dream bookshop, although it has the authentic dusty smell, because so many of the books are commonplace and show signs of distress, from abuse by their enemies mentioned above, as well as, inter alia, by readers and shop assistants. Indeed many bookmen now dismiss it, along with the rest of Charing Cross Road, saying there’s nothing there now, or something more earthy to that effect. But I cannot help noticing that I still meet these nay-sayers in Any Amount.

Browsing along the shelves I literally bumped into Stephen Poole (Stephen Poole Fine Books, 27 Cecil Court). After mutual apologies we chatted for a minute or two and, in a short time, I saw another former college from Cecil Court, Peter Ellis and an employee of Peter Harrington’s also having a hunt round. The last time I visited I saw someone from an even more distinguished west end shop slumming it.

While on the subject of booksellers slumming it I must make a bow (and a deep one) to the longest lasting bookselling slum of all, one attended like a weekly ritual defilement, by some of the most fastidious and knowledgeable booksellers in London: I refer to the Farringdon Road book barrows. It was to the book trade what the streets around Piccadilly were, a hundred years ago, to upper crust gentlemen with a taste for tarts. At the barrows one could watch men, normally seen wearing pressed shirts and well cut suits, dressed in rags and fighting in the street over grimy books piled on trestle tables. And it was worth it! Gentle librarian at Harvard or Yale, how many of your treasures now locked safely in cases, were snatched from a grimy table beside the railway, in the Farringdon Road?

At the back of Any Amount of books is a sort of holy of holies, where the more valuable books, the shop assistants and the money are kept, and where you pay for the precious volumes you have selected. As a matter of fact Peter Ellis was trying to make a purchase, but was being held up by an enthusiast for books about trains, who had found two volumes to his taste in the £1 books at the back of the basement and was complaining that the third volume of the set was not there. While Barry, one of the wonderfully patient assistants at Any Amount, tried to explain that the missing volume was the reason that the books were so cheap, a rather aggressive woman kept trying to butt-in, with an enquiry about custard, a particular recipe for which she had to find in a particular book. Barry, while infinitely patient, is not, perhaps, particularly given to concision in speech, and her task was not made any easier by the tottering heaps of books that blocked the approach to Barry’s inner sanctum, so that she had to sort of duck and weave amongst them. As I have found myself, some days the books seem to be taking over.

I turned back to the shelves to work my way though the ‘Religion’ section and Peter, who was no match for this aggression, stood on the edge of the scrum waiting; and, yes!, amongst the paperback guides to instant enlightenment and summaries of 2000 years of Christianity in 200 pages, were two Roman Catholic liturgies. You can spot them in an instant by the stubby shape and the black binding. I won’t bore you with the details, but they were pre-Vatican II, and had the text of the mass in Latin and English in parallel columns.

As I took my place in the queue behind Peter my heart was uplifted, not because I’m a Roman Catholic, or because the books were valuable, but because I knew they that I could sell them to someone who would use them. The custard woman had been escorted to the cookery section and, returning, forced her way in front of us with a dauntingly large tome, marking a place in it with a good fat, custard fed finger, and I liked her, despite her sharp elbows, because she had found a book she would use and that would, no doubt, get a few splodges of custard ingredients on its pages.

The truth is that the dream bookshop is, for me, only a dream; I am still excited to sell someone a book that I know they will use;- even a car maintenance manual. Books connect me with the world around me and with other people who are not bookish but need a book, and any bookseller that doesn’t have this experience is missing something. Besides, if we make the book trade too esoteric, too exclusive, how will fresh buyers come to know the innocent pleasures old books give; everyone starts somewhere. Cookery and Liturgy are two fields, amongst many others, in which one can still do this;- computers don’t take kindly to the rough and tumble of the kitchen and did you ever see someone following the church service on a kindle? People might try to substitute their blackberry for a guide book, but give me an old Baedeker stuffed in the pocket any day.