Last week I bought a second-hand book in a second-hand bookshop. It cost me two pounds and ninety-nine pence.
I used to spend more time in second-hand bookshops than I care to remember. In any new town I visited I always searched out the bookshop. In London I would always gravitate to Cecil Court off Charing Cross Road, or Bell Street in Marylebone (where there was an especially chaotic example). I always made sure to pass the stalls under Waterloo Bridge, and invariably dropped into Scoob Books on Sicilian Avenue whenever I got a sandwich at Onion. I almost never left a second hand bookshop without a book.
In consequence, I have a lot of rubbish books. I have read multiple novels by Harrison Ainsworth and Bulwer-Lytton, and reams of out-of-date scholarship in the form of those blue-backed penguins. But I have also stumbled on oddities and nice editions of things. To visit a second-hand bookshop is to give yourself over to the fates. Your intellectual development, such as it is, will be a thing of happenstance.
Things have changed. I almost never buy a book on a whim now. I know what I need and I find it on Amazon. I still occasionally get things second-hand, but by searching for them on Abe Books. My reading is directed, marshalled, connected. And just possibly a little over-determined. I am suspicious when people give me books as presents, or offer to lend me them. Time is short and I need to be efficient.
The second-hand bookshops of Cambridge are nearly all gone now. There used to be a good one opposite Magdalene College, and another on King Street. The only one that remains (which I know of) is G. David on St. Edward’s Passage, which has been trading, I read, since 1896.
Well, to repeat, I have bucked the trend. I bought a copy of Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. Thomas Mann is in no way on my radar. It only remains to be seen if I get round to reading it. If I do, I may repeat the experiment, and take a look in G. David, and force myself to emerge with something unexpected. Once a year should be about right.