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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