Today is National Book Day, which means that everyone is being encouraged to dash out and buy a new book. Well, that is certainly better than staying in and writing a new book, as there are far too many of them around already, but I want to draw attention to a section of the book trade that will get no attention at all today, and that is the second-hand book business.
I believe that many people are deterred from going into second-hand bookshops not only because they don’t realise what bargains they can find but above all because they are not quite sure how to behave once inside. So my mission for National Book Day is to tell you what to do once you are inside a second-hand bookshop.
This, then, is the Second-Hand Bookshop Code of Practice for Customers.
1. Enter the second-hand bookshop without saying anything or even looking at the owner. If you do look at the owner, he will not be offering eye contact. He will be reading a book catalogue, a letter, or a broadsheet newspaper. If he has none of these to hand he may even be reading a book, though with no apparent sign of enjoyment. Anything you offer in the way of a greeting will be unheeded. It is his way of testing you as a potential customer.
2. After ten minutes unassisted browsing, the owner will admit to himself that you have potential as a customer, and greet you with a curt “Good morning” or “Han-n-no”. This last is an approximation of a sound which will act as a greeting in any language - after all, for all the bookseller knows, you may be French or German or even American, and not speak any English at all.
3. You should make no reply.
4. Instead, carry on reading the book you have picked up, as if fascinated. This will convince him that you are indeed a serious customer.
5. When he has abandoned all hope of an answer and gone back to reading his letter/catalogue/paper, suddenly say whatever he said back to him, then pick up another book to cut off the conversation right there.
6. After half an hour or so, the bookseller’s nerve will crack and he will say something else. Nothing about the weather or politics, but one of the three following remarks or questions:
a) “Did you know there are some more rooms upstairs?”
b) “Did you know there are some more rooms downstairs?”
c) “Were you looking for something in particular?”
7. The correct answer to a) and b) is to say, “Oh, thanks”, and stay exactly where you are.
8. The correct answer to c) rather depends on your own taste in reading, but the important thing is not to ask for anything he might have. To say “biography” or “travel” is to give up the game immediately. He is bound to have lashings of both, and you will not be able to leave without feeling you should buy something. Ask for an author or a subject you have already looked for and found no sign of. My favourite responses are “Well, H.L.Mencken, actually,” and “Do you have a humour section?”. They very rarely have either.
9. The bookseller, not having any H.L.Mencken or humour, not even perhaps being quite sure who H.L.Mencken was, will try to approximate it to something he DOES have. So he will now say something like: “Mencken was American, wasn’t he? We’ve got a good American section. Travel mostly”, or “We don’t have a humour section as such, but there are some nice cartoon collections on the Art Shelves, and I believe there are some quite good editions of Jerome K Jerome in the fiction.”
10. He is trying to tease more information out of you, hoping you will admit whether you are into written or pictorial humour, or how far you have a taste for Americana.
11. So the correct response is a non-committal “Hmmmmm”.
12. At this point the bookseller will despair of getting anywhere with you, and fall silent. This is the point at which I drift upstairs and, when I am sure I am not being observed, get out of my coat pocket the six or so second-hand books I have brought with me and put them on the shelves.
13. This is because my wife has been pointing out for some time that we have far too many books at home. I cannot bring myself to throw a book away. There are many books which not even Oxfam or a school jumble sale will take. Therefore the only course of action is to secrete them on to the shelves of a second-hand bookshop, by the above method.
14. I do not, of course, buy anything.
15. Can you imagine what the wife would say if I came back with more books?
Hope this is of some help. Have a nice National Book Day!
The Independent Thursday April 23 1998