One Is Never Enough

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[N.B. This piece was also selected by WordPress as the Editors' Pick for one of the top 10 posts of the month.]

As if you could not guess, gentle reader, I am something of a bibliophile.  By this I do not mean that I collect beautiful, leather-bound volumes of first editions, nice as those are.  I mean that I love and collect books in many different subject areas, fiction and non-fiction, all of which I actually read AND display.  I am the sort of person who winces when he reads of decorators purchasing bulk lots of books by the yard from secondhand bookshops, graded by size, to fill up the shelves of someone whose taste in literature is generally limited to the airport newsstand variety of novel.  And more often than not my books have come to me via someone else’s previous collection.

On the British sitcom “Black Books”, bookshop owner Bernard Black is generally in an impenetrably foul mood.  He hates his customers interrupting his reading, smoking, and drinking, usually getting rid of these interlopers as quickly as possible.  And he has only two friends to speak of: his long-suffering shop assistant and flatmate Manny Bianco, and their mutual friend and fellow alcoholic/chainsmoker, Fran Katzenjammer.  If you have never seen the series, it is a wonderful mix of black comedy, misanthropy, and surrealism.  It is also about the love of books.

It is easy to understand why Bernard gets so fed up with the people who paradoxically both allow him to continue to have books to read, while at the same time they stop him from reading so he can serve them.  Many people in secondhand bookshops are more interested in browsing than buying, and if they do buy they rarely pick up anything more than one book at a time.  The amount of effort required for the shop owner to realize a sale is so much greater than the actual reward, that Bernard does not really care.  In one episode for example, when Manny has successfully managed to shift a large quantity of the stock through good salesmanship, Bernard becomes despondent since he will now have to contact a book supplier to send more books, something which he hates doing and, thanks to his customer handling technique, he almost never has to do.

I know of a bookshop in Barcelona with a proprietor not unlike Bernard in his way, where a few years ago I managed to purchase a book by my great-great-grandfather.  It is probably my most valued book in a rather extensive library (a collection still split between my current residence and my childhood home), since my ancestor inscribed it and gave it as a gift to a friend of his.  The following year I returned to see whether they had any more of his books, but instead of dealing with a pleasant and helpful young shop assistant as I had the previous visit, this time the old man himself quite literally shooed me out of the shop and refused to see whether he had anything: he was too busy smoking his pipe and talking with another elderly fellow.  Needless to say I have never returned there, as tantalizing as their stock is.

Another secondhand bookshop I know here in Washington is somewhat different in its view of its stock, for if you purchase four books you may take a fifth, free – lowest value, of course.  As it is run by a non-profit with a fairly high rate of book turnover, it does a reasonably brisk trade, and there are always new finds being placed on the shelves by the elderly ladies that work there.  I am particularly fond of tracking down rather technical history and architectural/artistic theory books, or English translations of lesser-kn0wn works by Balzac, and often have success at this shop.  Yet here again, one of the women behind the desk strikes me as a bit suspicious of her patrons, and a bit slow to serve, more interested in what she is reading than in serving.

Perhaps this has to do with the sort of person who would be attracted to working in a bookshop in the first place, or more particularly to working in a used bookshop.  People who love books often are only understood by other people who love books.  One can imagine that the scriptorium of a medieval monastery must have been somewhat similar to a secondhand bookshop in this respect, with some of the monks lingering lovingly over the words they were copying, or the librarian himself keeping choice books back for his own, private enjoyment.  In fact, one of the reasons Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” was such an engagingly-written tale was that it tried to capture that love – albeit an obsessive, unhealthy love – of the accumulation of more and more books, which has not really changed over the centuries.

At the moment back at the manse I have a stack of books which I have not yet read, and which I know I need to tackle, and I will definitely take the sensible option of getting through all of them before I even think of accumulating any more.  Yet even as I do so I cannot help but think about what books I want to read which are missing from my collection, or what wonderful discoveries of books or authors I have never heard of might be waiting for me at a secondhand book shop, charity shop, yard sale, or the like.  Unlike most addictions, the love of good books does not make one less, but rather more, of who you already are – provided, of course, that you try your best to be polite.

Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) tries selling an unusual volume on “Black Books”

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82 thoughts on “One Is Never Enough

  1. As a librarian-in-training and a fellow bibliophile, I could not resist the need to comment. Granted, I don’t tend to buy books because a) small apartment and they’re big and heavy and b) not so much funding in that part of the budget. I digress, unsurprisingly. Simply put:

    Those people who truly want to combine customer/community service with a love of books are more often found in a library – an institution created with public outreach as a main goal – than in a bookstore. While I have met plenty of excellent, friendly bookstore employees – and yes, many grouchy, downtrodden librarians – I still believe this to be true.

    I also think it’s a wonderful aspect of libraries that one can engage the love of reading, and the love of lifelong learning, without being denied due to lack of funding. Perhaps our extensive family use of the library weighed heavily upon me as a child. Regardless, I tend to purchase only those books which have personal meaning to me (e.g., your great-great-grandfather’s writings) or those books which I believe I’ll never tire of (e.g., CS Lewis’s writings, or classic children’s books like Curious George.)

    As I wrap up this extremely long comment, may I say, excellent writing. I’d watch the show if I had access.

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  2. Yes, and isn’t Manny great? :) I have the same situation that you do, work in two libraries, and my collection is spread out over three locations. And yet I can’t help reading Shelf Awareness and trying to get hold of new ones as they come into the library catalog. And don’t get me started on inter-library loans.
    A favorite quote among my library friends is “Bernard…Bernard…Bernard…”

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  3. Pingback: One Is Never Enough | Blog of the Courtier - Classic British Sitcom Videos

  4. I have to rearrange my bookshelves on a regular basis as I am constantly buying new books. I simply cannot resist a good bookshop and seldom enter without buying something. My stack of books to read is simply ridiculous.

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  5. I’ve worked in the book trade for years – admittedly generally with new books – but I’ve always suspected that Bernard was fine originally but traumatised by his encounters with customers… There is something about bookshops, especially second-hand bookshops, that brings out the strange, the lost, the peculiar and the downright worrying.

    We took to collecting them (In writing, not in person – thank heavens). It was either that or commit murder. You were much less likely want to stab people if you knew you could share remarks like ‘I’m looking for a pink book’, and ‘Have you got a play, I think it’s “A Stretcher Called Desire”?’

    Agh……

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    • Hahaha, I’m just starting a notebook with all the silly-customer stories from the plant nursery where I work! (“I want the same flowers I had last year. They were red.”)

      My boss’s wife and I have just been talking about how nice it would be to combine the nursery with a bookshop. But knowing myself, I’d never get any work done, and I definitely would get grumpy if customers interrupted my reading.

      I really wish there was a used book shop in my town…. but at least there are flea markets…. (and how strange to read this when I’ve just finished reading The Name of the Rose!)

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  6. As an aspiring novelist and also a lover of the series “Black Books”, it was quite impossible to resist my curiositiy and read your post. I love reading, but since I also love travelling, I like my books digital (though I still bring dictionaries to foreign countries)

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  7. I, too, love reading and am trying to instill that love in my children. However, the love of books looks different today. My daughter is a voracious reader, but she prefers her e-reader to actually carrying around a book. With the e-reader, she has access to ALL of her books, rather than just the ones she can physically carry.
    I have also started ‘downsizing’ my physical collection due to lack of space (it’s rather like selling my children, so I haven’t gotten very far). I love my e-reader too, but there’s still something comforting about curling up in front of a roaring fire with a blanket, a cup of hot cocoa, and my favorite book.

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  8. I suspect that you have hit on the profile of an avid reader working in the trade of his or her dreams—owning an independent bookstore or used bookshop, a bibliophile’s concept of heaven.

    I can see me in the same situation not wanting to be disturbed especially when I’m reading a book that absorbs me totally.

    Alas, it seems that avid readers are a dying breed that will one day be an endangered species. When that time comes, there will be laws that will punish book lover for reading more than thirty minutes a day because we are not out waddling around with all the other obese nonreaders spending money to help inflate the coffers of corporations or watching several hours of TV a day so programs may charge more for the advertising that breaks every ten minutes to numb us and motivate us to waddle around spending more money, but not on books because if you are staying home reading books, we are not out shopping and eating at McDonalds or slurping coffee at Starbucks.

    Instead, we would be at home or in our dusty bookshop sipping tea and turning pages with the TV off most of the time.

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  9. I think I’d like to one day end up living like Bernard. Though with more washing involved and no cat landlords. Really great post, and actually kind of beautiful last line, and very, very true.
    I hope I have an extensive collection one day too :)

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  10. As a book lover with a family history in the book business (my grandfather printed gorgeous limited editions and my grandmother wrote, printed, and published a book about my grandfather after he passed away) I thoroughly enjoyed this post! I also have been a fan of Black’s books for several years now! Bernard Black is a curmudgeonly character you can’t help but be fascinated by. Dylan Moran must be a pretty amazing guy, because not only did he act the part but he’s the scriptwriter for the series! In any event….although I enjoy my computer, I’ll never give up the love of holding a book and turning the pages! And when it comes to sharing books with kids…..a computer, nook, kindle is a pathetic substitution that would never fly for more than a passing novelty with any kids who really enjoy reading or being read to!

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  11. Lovely article. I work in a bookshop which owes its very existence to Black Books (the owner was inspired to open the shop after watching the series). Though we’re not quite at the Bernard Black level of customer service, it is infuriating when customers browse the shelves for five minutes and leave. There are thousands of books, and so many treasures that you couldn’t possibly browse properly in a few minutes. There are hazards of working there, though. It’s very difficult not to spend my wage on books.

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  12. BB Is a wonderful show. I think the episode where the chain bookstore opens next to BB is a great illustrator for the passions of your blog.

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  13. Yes I also go to second hand bookshop and I love browsing. While one of my friend has a bookshop, quite large, which is also a magnificent place to sit and chat, behaves very strangely and quite extraordinarily.
    Let me narrate one of the funny stories which I had experienced with him.

    One day we were chatting, and also smoking, then an old man entered the shop, searched around a little, and then picked up a book which was published in the 1990 and told this is 100 ?Yes?(An average price of a book in 2012 in my country is 5000Rials)
    And my friend shocked at what he heard and told, yes it is, but in which year is it published? customer replied firmly:
    “1992″
    My friend said “then jump back and come in that year”. Go!
    The man, being rteased, left the Shop.

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  14. I don’t know why but I pretty much fell in love with Bernard Black as soon as I saw him! I love Dylan Moran as a comedian, too. His stage persona is a lot like Bernard.

    Now that I think about it, I’m probably drawn to Bernard because he’s basically all id. He doesn’t seem to have any qualms about satisfying all his impulses as soon as they arise, ignoring social conventions and decency if necessary. I think we all would like to be like him, but we can’t. There are all those pesky other people and there sensibilities to take into account before acting on our impulses. :)

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  15. I’ve always dreamed of owning a cafe/bookshop. A place where book-lovers can get cake, coffee and a quiet little nook where they can sit and read to their heart’s content. With the invent of e-readers, this dream has actually become more realistic, as I wouldn’t need to rent quite as much floor space. I would only need room for comfy chairs, side tables, kitchen, and counter (with facilities for readers to download additional books to their devices).

    Maybe one day, when I’m a crazy old cat lady with too much time on her hands…

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  16. I came for the Black Books reference and enjoyed this post very much. I completely agree about both booksellers and the need for more books of every kind.
    “I will definitely take the sensible option of getting through all of them before I even think of accumulating any more.” I only wish I could withhold buying more books before reading the ones I have. How disciplined you are! <3

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  17. Serendipty coming across your post as I just posted about bibliophiles and bibliomaniacs–there is a difference :) Not familiar with the Black Books series and will try to find it via Internet (no TV).
    Happy Pages,
    CricketMuse
    Aah, you are obviously a Book Booster. Care to join the growing ranks of BBs?

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  18. I saw your post on Freshly Pressed and while being a book lover, I confess I clicked on the post also because of the Black Books reference. I was lucky enough to see Bill Bailey live in Adelaide last week and laughed for his entire show. I loved your final sentence….indeed, good books are good for the soul.

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  19. Great post. I enjoyed it a lot. I can identify with this a lot. I have amassed too many books for my book closet in my apartment, and I most likely won’t have enough time to read all of them before I move back to Canada from Japan (I will attempt to bring them with me, as I love having books and never sell them). My wife likes to read books, but isn’t a big reader, so she doesn’t seem to understand my love of reading and writing.

    I have to agree that while I have a large unread collection, I am always tempted buy a book when I see one. I have a large list of books to buy.

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  20. Love the blog. Like you I go into bookshops in different cities just for a browse. I’ve never been disappointed by the variety of books in different countries or what is on display.

    In Tangiers in Morocco I came across a number of books by Jerzy Kosinski that had been oit of print in Europe for ages, and bought the lot.

    In Romania (while still under Communist rule) a small bookshop I frequented had no books whatsover, although the ‘librarian’ opened the bookshop promptly at nine, had lunch from 12 to 1 and closed exactly at 6 pm.
    Twice I did find books in there – once I found a childrens’ book, in German, that had 4 thick cardboard pages and was about a small boy pooping himself (how very German I thought at the time), the other time there were two identical books on Stress and Fracture Mechanics in Steel Structures by Timoshenko. Being a structural man myself I thought this was a fascinating find. But they weren’t for sale because the librarian had no written permission to sell them. It was just an excellent experience.

    I could go on (the bookshop in Cadiz that had a hidden section with BDSM Comics, the bookshop in Baghdad that only sold holiday brochures – obtained free from Western travel agents, etc, etc) – each encounter a delight.

    I love books as you do but the people who sell them have more stories to tell.

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  21. Thanks to everyone for all of the kind comments and sharing their own stories! I’m glad you liked the piece and that it led to reflection and recollection for so many. And thank you to WordPress for selecting this for “Freshly Pressed”!

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  22. This is the exact post I wanted to write! Shows what happens when you procrastinate… I also acquire books obsessively and fairly indiscriminately, although I do gravitate towards history and historical fiction. I toyed with the idea of owning/working in a bookshop but very quickly realised I would have been as curmudgeonly as Bernard. I already displayed a distinct tendency to withhold books from those that I felt were unworthy when I was working part-time in my university library.
    Thanks so much for sharing, and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

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  23. The folk who work in the local secondhand bookstores here in Jo’burg seem much more approachable and knowledgeable than their counterparts in a chain store such as Exclusive Books.
    The one I usually frequent reminds of the type of bookshop Terry Pratchett describes and I find myself wondering if I’ll disappear into L- space down one of the isles!
    Good read. Thoroughly enjoyed this post.

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  24. Book shop owners are a very similar breed to wool shop owners – they love their product; they hate customers. For this very reason, they shouldn’t be working in/owning a store. It very much irritates me, the short-sightedness of people.

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  25. Really enjoyed your observation of that type of bookstore owner – now I am going to search for the show! I totally identify with (a) the reckless acquisition and hoarding instinct when it comes to books; and (b) the great upheaval of emotions when I have to put down a book when I am absorbed, due to an interruption like a phone call or it being 5 a.m. or something! I guess it just means I shouldn’t ever own or work at a bookstore ;-) But yeah, good books kind of do make it hard to resist letting go, don’t they!

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  26. Thoroughly agree with your observations; I myself am a book hoarder and can relate to the stress of an interruption when reading; it seems that once the connection between yourself and a book is broken it takes hours to regain it.

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  27. An avid reader and a bibliophile too, dealing with serious TV series enthusiasm (I state enthusiasm, but I mean *addiction*) I was delighted by this post, and I just can’t wait to watch “Black books”. On which Channel does it air?
    Floreva

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  28. Pingback: Last minute update : a nice cuppa and a British series episode Black Books « Café culture addict

  29. HAHAHA – I LOVE Black Books. We have both series at home, although series one is defintely the better of the two. My wife has recently taken to liberating some of my books to charity shops, not that I have a massive hoard, but I do like collecting a series if I get into it. I’m a fiction fan, tending to go for stuff like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Brett Battles “The Cleaner” mixed with a little Dean Koontz, and Robert Patterson.

    One of my favourite quotes of black books is when he’s ushering people out with a broom. ” I Expect more ” says one man….. ” Expect away ” replies Bernard………Love it……

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  30. Pingback: Weekly Writing Challenge: The Value of a Second Hand Book | Gemgem Goes Global

  31. I really enjoyed your post. I am a voracious reader, and I love books. However, I live in a very humid place (Kauai), and books don’t last well here. They get moldy really quickly. So we don’t buy a lot of actual books anymore (mostly ebooks – no mold), and we definitely don’t try to hang on to the paper ones. My teenage daughter is already complaining though that she misses real books. I wonder sometimes if printed books are going to become a thing of the past (we already lost Borders, our only bookstore here), and if eventually we will read everything on some kind of device. I hope not…. Thanks for a great post, and congratulations on being fresh pressed!

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    • I hope not either! Devices are great, but there is something about the tactile pleasure of reading a book, writing in it, sticking receipts or old tickets and things in it to use as bookmarks and so on. Thank for reading!

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  32. Pingback: Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks for September 2012 — Blog — WordPress.com

  33. I love books! I have reached a point where my collection of books at home is struggling to take over the house (my husband despairs…) but I can’t be without them. If I leave the house without something to read it could quite possibly be the END OF THE WORLD! I’d love to work in a second hand bookshop although I suspect more books would make their way home to live with me than would be sold to the public…

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  34. Jolly good read. As a fellow bibliophile, I agree completely with every word. Sadly, for lack of space, I’m giving away some of my books which I have been careful to be sure I have read and won’t be missed.

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  35. Great post and congrats on being freshly pressed, well deserved. I am excited to check out BB, sound like something I would love. I actually work at BN and Scholastic bookfairs, and love them both dearly (surrounded by books…yay), and yet I still frequent several used book stores and thrift shops. Books, reading, books, reading…oh the sweet life, unfortunately, I have to fit work in there too. I could not agree more with your closing.

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    • Thanks so much! Yes, having to work and read things that are not for pleasure is hard sometimes, isn’t it? “I could be reading some short stories…” Enjoy being surrounded by books though, that’s wonderful.

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  36. A great read. I loved the Black Books series too and watched it when I lived in the UK. I’m also a big book lover and refused to leave my large collection behind when we moved to Mallorca. As a result, the bulk of our removals billw as for books, rather than furniture! If you ever come to Palma, there’s a great little secondhand book shop called Fine Books. The owner moved his entire stock from his former shop in Bournemouth in England!

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  37. I too have a teetering pile of books that I need to get through, and yet whenever there is a church sale or charity book sale, there I am, walking to my car with armloads. It is so exciting! What will I find next? I started years ago, collecting old children’s books for their marvellous illustrations, then art books, now my collection includes books on gardening, cooking, crafts, philosophy, Africana, stories of wildlife and anything else that strikes my fancy. I am surrounded by books and even a chaise lounge with a collapsed leg is being propped up with a pile of books. I am like a hamster with a nest made of ripped up newspaper. Do I need professional help?

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  38. Slike the post; blove the language. You are a reader after my own heart, Mr. Newton. Made me think of the books not yet written–those aching to get out of the writers’ heads. There is no end to it!

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  39. A wonderful read, William! Your sense of humor captivates me and made me laugh right out loud! I was just contemplating the nature of a used book store employee, when you took me by the hand and caused a grin! I’m new to your blog….but what a delightful surprise you are! I’m looking forward to reading you……..xoxo

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  40. Not only have you achieved in becoming a consummate blogger, but encouraged me to visit ye olde book shop & not merely grab a paperback from the supermarket shelves.

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  41. Quite the opposite of yourself, Mr Newton, I’m suffering from a lack of reading. Since coming to university in the last three-and-a-bit years my attention span appears to be shot to pieces, a victim of too many late nights, toxic cocktails and mindless internet videos. I’m trying to turn it around – recently attending a literary festival, joining a creative writing society, buying audiobooks – but it’s a long process to reverse. Coursework takes up a lot of time, but my next challenge for myself will be to finish Dickens’ A Christmas Carol this festive season; I’ve started it three years running but never got past the first ghost. And yes, Black Books is fantastic.

    Thanks for the read!

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