An article appeared this week in The Telegraph (one of the leading ‘serious’ newspapers published in the UK) in which Theodore Dalrymple extolled the delights of browsing in second-hand book shops and bemoaned their demise.
When I worked in Cardiff city center many years ago I loved spending the occasional lunch break picking through the jumble of books in a few of these shops. They were just as dusty and damp smelling as Dalrymple described though I can’t say I ever found any mummified silverfish or any books owned by a serial killer. But I did enjoy the serendipitous nature of the stocking strategy with its juxtaposition of authors who in real life had little in common and novels inscribed with tender messages of love and affection from long ago owners.
Most of these shops have now disappeared under the combined weight of increased business rates and online stores. There is only one left in a city center arcade but the shelves seem more devoted to flogging hard back editions of Jilly Cooper than cloth bound editions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
For serious second hand book shopping, there is really only one place to head in the UK and that’s to the town of Hay-on-Wye, a small market town on the English/Welsh border which has dubbed itself ‘the town of books.’ Hay currently boasts some 30 antiquarian or second hand dealers which is quite something for a town that has less than 2,000 inhabitants (plus a few thousand sheep in the surrounding Black Mountains). Just wandering through the oldest of these establishments – the Hay Cinema Bookshop – requires a few hours.
It’s a warren of a place with around 200,000 books in the cavernous space of the former cinema. And if the indoor shelves are not enough to satisfy the appetite, the store also spills out into the garden. The last time I visited I picked up old Penguin editions of the entire Corridors of Power series by C P Snow which had been out of print in the UK for several years. The pages are a little yellow along the edges and the covers a little cracked but that just adds to their character for me.
It’s a while since I’ve paid a trip there but I feel the urge to return sometime soon……