Friday, 13 May 2011

The Decline of Secondhand

I went out on a little trip this week; me, myself and I. It is infrequent for me to visit Liverpool city centre these days, living, as I do, a sedentary life on the Wirral. Residing just across the water from Liverpool, I rarely make the effort. Though, as today proved, hopping on the train is easy and cheaper than driving through the tunnel and struggling with the vagaries of parking. That is, if all you need is a wander round the city centre; anywhere farther afield and it all becomes a little more problematic.

The city centre has changed a lot since I lived nearby. I was a student at Liverpool University in the early 1980s and then lived in the Toxteth district during Thatcher's continued decimation of the city. Today there are masses of bright new and inaccessible buildings; inaccessible to the casual visitor that is. But my visit did highlight one detail of interest for the world of books.

The mainstream bookseller on the high street is surviving; just about. These shops are clinging on; though for how much longer who can tell. You can still go to your town centre and have a peaceful browse. Though I must admit, I myself, have looked at titles in-store and noted how much cheaper they were on the internet.

What seems to have been less noticed is the demise of another area within the book trade: the secondhand bookshop. This has not made it to the headlines and is little commented on in those TV documentaries about books; those that lament the rise of the internet. Rich authors – the ones that get on TV – and media pundits probably get all their books in brand spanking new editions; and also likely for free, all in the hope of some quotable, dishonest blurb.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s there were a number of secondhand bookshops in Liverpool mostly clustered around Renshaw Street (not far from Lime Street and the railway station) and a couple more continued on into Berry Street. Note that I'm relying on memory here for the descriptions that follow and all I can guarantee is that some of it will be wrong. However it's all true in the sense of this is what I remember.

The secondhand bookshop I frequented and liked the most was near the corner of Renshaw Street and Hardman Street. It had an unprepossessing glass front and wooden floors with stacked high bookshelves on the surrounding walls. The shop must have originally been a small town house with the front and back rooms converted into the shop. The more popular books were in the front room. There was a desk near the back wall with the till on it and usually someone sitting behind. You stepped behind this desk and up a couple of steps to get at the books I was most interested in. These were mostly on politics and history. The shop was run by former members of the Communist Party and must have influenced the stock; old, dying members of the CP bequeathing their past. There was lots of the old Left Book Club editions but the book I purchased back then that I most treasure is the complete 1902 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. I paid a whole £50 for this; which then seemed a lot of money.

Further down Renshaw Street was 69A Intandane. This shop was swamped in clutter, selling: second hand clothes, old records, jewellery and much other bric-a-brac. It also stocked pieces of African art; and I still have some wooden African heads on my mantelpiece purchased from back then. The secondhand books were relegated to the very back of the shop. I did not go into this shop very much in those days. The books seemed vastly overpriced and the stock limited.

Today this is the only one of these shops to have survived and looks almost identical to back in the Eighties. And this week I did take a look inside and purchase a few books: Thackeray, Galsworthy and Masefield. Fortunately prices seemed reasonable, the staff seemed more friendly, though the choice was still limited.

Not far into Berry Street, on a corner and not quite opposite the bombed out church, was another little secondhand bookshop. This one was more conventional than the others described here and was run by a young man and his Asian wife. She apparently only appeared when the man was out and always looked like she did not want to be there. (The picture with this post is one I took on this trip. I think it is this shop as it is today; derelict and forgotten. However I cannot be exactly sure I have the right corner; such are the ravages and distortions of time.)

Oddest of all was the Text Book Exchange which was farther down Berry Street. This was a small town house, two-up-two-down style, that had been converted into a shop at the minimum of expense. You entered the narrow hallway, one side of which had bookshelves that reached to the ceiling and carried on up the stairs. So high were the shelves that it was impossible to see upon the topmost levels and even more difficult was it to gaze upon those trailing up the stairs. The narrowness of the hallway made browsing uncomfortable. The few times I entered the shop I rarely found anything of interest and few other customers seemed to bother. The main purpose of these books was to disguise the entrance from any passing snooper. For if you entered what had previously been the front room you discovered pornography for sale. Not that there was much of interest here either; this room was filled with the kind of pornography that could be purchased from any newsagents and was equally devoid of lurking customers. A curious kind of shop; quaint in its way; the kind long ravaged by city developers.

It sad this kind of shop has almost disappeared. For sure you can pick up all the secondhand books you want off the internet; often that obscure treasure is just a click away and not very expensive either. But there is nothing quite like discovering that treasure in some dusty forgotten corner, when you're feeling tired, your eyes are blurry, and you should really be getting back home; then you spot a likely cover, and yes it is, that one that brings you almost, but not quite, to some author's complete works. What joy.

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