Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Rise of Secondhand Bookshops in Britain


There is a general idea that there are fewer second hand bookshops in Britain than there used to be, and that they are slowly fading away. Until recently, I would have subscribed to this notion too. I tend to remember not only where bookshops are, but where they used to be: and it often seems that there are more absences than presences. However, on the best evidence we have, this impression seems in fact to be quite wrong.

The first thing to note is that, compared with most of the 20th century, the number of second-hand bookshops is now much higher. I haven’t seen definitive figures but I have read accounts of the book trade in the early to mid 20th century that suggest there were few shops outside London, the bigger cities, Oxford and Cambridge. Most readers tended to get their books from private circulating libraries or public libraries. Newsagents and stationers sometimes had a few shelves of used books, but not on any scale. It would be interesting to identify when the picture changed more towards what we see now: my guess would be, in the Sixties, but that is mere surmise.

However, what about the more recent trend? Well, we can make a pretty good comparison between the number of bookshops now and the number thirty years ago. The current total is fairly straightforward. There is a marvellous online guide to second hand bookshops in Britain, thebookguide, run valiantly and voluntarily by the Inprint Bookshop, Stroud, Gloucestershire. This receives not only reviews of bookshops but news from readers about closed or newly opened or discovered examples. It’s about as definitive as you can get.

On 21 August 2017, this website reported: “We list 1217 bookshops in the UK and Ireland, with only 287 of them run by charities.” Of these, about 30 are in the Republic of Ireland, so the UK total is therefore 1187.

To get a similar figure for thirty years ago, we must consult Driff’s Guide to the Secondhand & Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain. Driff was the pen-name of a noted figure in the book trade and his guides won fame (or notoriety) for his pungently-expressed opinions of the bookshops and their owners.

This guide ran through six editions, and I have consulted the 1984 edition, simply because it’s the one I have. Driff was so confident that he had listed every bookshop in the country that he offered a free copy of the next issue of the guide to any reader who sent in details of any he had missed (or any that had closed). He was also obsessively diligent, relating entertainingly his quest for shops where he had only the vaguest details to go on. For this issue, he noted that all of the entries had been double-checked in the last two weeks of July 1984. He lists 942.

So we can see that there are indeed more second-hand bookshops in the UK than there were thirty years ago, in fact about 25% more. That seems fairly conclusive, but there may be some objections. The Inprint guide includes charity bookshops. Note that these are mostly full bookshops, not those that have a few shelves of books among other charity donations such as clothes, records and bric-a-brac. It will be seen that if these 287 charity shops were discounted, there would indeed be rather fewer now than then. But I don’t quite see why they should be excluded: they are second-hand bookshops, and for the reader or collector, who owns them is irrelevant.

It is also true that the Inprint guide includes some private premises only open by appointment, book rooms in antiques centres, some market stalls, and some big book warehouses principally used for internet selling but also open to the public. But all of these seem to me quite valid. The Inprint guide says: “We consider a 'shop' to be any business with a significant stock of secondhand or collectable books, that welcomes visitors at advertised times, or by prior appointment.”

That seems to me a perfectly fair test. And in any case Driff’s guide also included some of these types of entries. Driff’s own definition of a secondhand bookshop was “anywhere that has more than a thousand books and is open more than two days a week.” He added that “Some antique shops have been included” where the owner had a serious interest in books, and some stalls where they were near bookshops. Further, Driff tells amusing anecdotes of shops he has included that seem to be pretty much semi-closed, or with other highly erratic characteristics.

It's also true that Driff lists some bookshops that are not included in his numbering system: some are only rumoured, some are stalls, curio shops etc worth a look if you're in the area, some just seem to be afterthoughts. Overall, I think it is likely that the Inprint guide is slightly more inclusive than Driff’s, but not significantly so.

Why, then, do so many readers and collectors think there are fewer second-hand bookshops, when this is not apparently supported by the evidence? Well, I suspect it is one of those myths that stays current because it sounds right and fits in with our assumptions. We expect online bookselling, electronic books and so on to have made an impact, and it no doubt has, though physical bookshops can sell online too, so they now have another avenue for sales.

There is also, in my experience, often an innate lugubriousness about some second-hand booksellers, who may themselves therefore contribute to the idea that the trade is in irreversible decline. It also seems to be true that there are fewer bookshops in cities, where they might be noticed more. However, there may possibly now be more in smaller towns, especially those with a strong tourist trade.

It’s also possible that over a more recent period – say, the last 10-15 years – there has been a dip from a previous peak. But even if this is so this would not alter the broad picture of a substantial increase over a reasonable span of time. Let us conclude, therefore, by celebrating those doughty, determined, often interesting and independent, individuals who carry on the chancy trade and desperate art of second-hand bookselling.

Note: amended to get the sums right and to note the bookshops Driff mentioned but didn't number.



Mark Valentine

17 comments:

  1. One of the most instructive and cheering things I have read on the internet!

    Dale Nelson

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  2. In the early 1980s my friend David Streitfeld and I visited every second-hand bookshop in the greater Washington DC metro area. We wrote them up, with brief comments, for a special issue of the Post's weekend section. Somewhere, no doubt, I still have a copy. Back then, there were around 60 shops in the area. Today, though, I would guess there are only half that number. When people want to "deaccession"books now, they complain that they can either donate them to the charity bookshop in Montgomery County or sell them to Second Story Books. Since Second Story now has a virtual monopoly on giving any cash for books, it can be both selective in what they take, which is fine, or offer quite derisory amounts, take it or leave it. But I also know that Second Story'now makes most of its money from online sales and only keeps its big Rocville warehouse open for the sake of its longtime employees. So long as it breaks even, they have jobs.
    The internet, as we know, has made common books--those priced under $50--a glut on the market. What is really lost by the dominance of internet book sales is the education one receives by browsing the shelves at brick and mortar stores.--md

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  3. It is tempting for us old-timers (I have been collecting for over thirty-five years) to visit a city or town and fondly remember the long-gone secondhand bookshops that used to be down the various streets and alleyways (and to recall, of course, the treasures they yielded.) But many of those shops only lasted for a few years, and they did not all exist concurrently. At any one time, there were not necessarily as many secondhand bookshops as we like to think.

    It is also very tempting to remember when every bookshop seemed to offer reasonably-priced first editions by all of our favourite authors. But that is probably because we remember all the times we unearthed precious, neglected volumes, and forget the many visits when we came away empty-handed.

    Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be!


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  4. I hope your thesis is true. When I was in Cromer,Norfolk a couple of years back most of the shops that were supposed to be there had gone. The one interesting one that remained had obviously been perusing the web and wanted over a tenner for tatty horror paperbacks in dreadful condition, the lugubriousness you mention thrown in free as he listed the reasons why competitors had gone. Other towns I visited in England sometimes hadn't a single bookshop. Selling books is difficult now. At the start of the 21st century it was still worthwhile taking a box of decent stuff to the counter of London shops,but prices have declined to an astonishing extent. The upside is that in good stores like Any Amount of Books in Charing Cross Road, London, prices are lower than ever - as I write their basement stock is a pound for any book for the moment.

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  5. Whether second-hand book stores persist or nearly vanish, they are, for some of us, a pleasure to read about. Someone should compile a nice thick book of reminiscences, anecdotes, inside stories, etc. on such stores, illustrated if possible with contemporary photographs and also pictures of book dealers et al. as they are now. These places and people had character.

    Dale Nelson

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  6. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Sandy, the good news is that the Inprint guide lists three current secondhand bookshops in Cromer,and I can confirm they're all still there - I've seen them this year! Had some good finds there on occasions too. Michael, I hope to introduce you to excellent bookshops here later in the year. Dale, I do agree that would make a very readable book. Ray, what you describe was just what I felt too, and you're right about how memory works. The facts suggest a different picture! Mark

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  8. I find it hard to get my head around the FACT that there is someone else out there who doesn't BELIEVE that secondhand bookshops are in terminal decline! Of course almost nobody will believe you either - and how appropriate that it should appear in a blog devoted to fantasy writing : ) Since the first scare story about the death of the secondhand bookshop was put out in 2005, I have been trying to counter this view with a few facts. Every time a new story appears in the media, I dutifully issue a refutation backed up with the numbers - to no avail. There simply appears to be a nationwide collective need to believe that there was a 'Golden Age', with at least one secondhand bookshop in every town, stuffed with treasures at absurdly low prices. The worse thing about this situation is that is so dispiriting for those of us who struggle to keep the traditional secondhand bookshop alive. To be told endlessly that you are about to go extinct will take the shine off anyone's day. So thank you Mark for such a well-argued rebuttal. - TheBookGuide

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  9. Certainly the number of second-hand bookshops has fallen in London: compare Charing CRoss Road or the area around the British Museum now with thirty or forty years ago. Also, the quality has been affected by the rise of charity shops. Charity shops take what they can get and the people who run them usually aren't knowledgeable about books. I also think that Ebay may have affected the number of bookshops: as well as internet dealers, people who would have sold their collections at a second-hand bookshop now do so via Ebay.
    The other aspect that has altered is the size of the shops: there are a lot more small specialist shops now, whereas the enormous packed shops, like Waterfields in Oxford or Two Jays in Edgware or the converted church in Hastings are far fewer than they were, and it's cheap finds bought for curiosity that form peoples' taste when they can afford to become collectors.

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  10. Any Amount of Books in the CX road is a wonderful beacon, keeping the 2nd hand and rare book embers alight for stalwart collectors. I have built up a number of collections from its august shelves. There are good shops out there, but I would also note the decline in the frequency of such citadels, where choice and fair price went hand in hand, and also note the decline in the quality of varied and fairly priced book fair stock. As for charity bookshop stock, there is a great variance in quality, price, and the dreaded label of 'collectable'. I give thanks to AAB for their fecund alacrity and magnetic fingers.

    Jean du Bois

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  11. I also remember AAB's sister bookshop, the Charing Cross Rd bookshop (if memory serves) now sadly gone some years hence, that had a fine gallimaufry of tomes. Spoilt we were, in those days of old. I remember some serious spending! Another manifestation of what was ultimately not sustainable due to external economic factors in the area. Just down from good old Shipley art rare books - long gone. It was not uncommon to see Derek Jarman searching their shelves - the great poet of the eye. They had a coal fire in the grate there to keep bibliophiles warm.


    Jean du Bois

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    1. I can remember AAB when it was in Hammersmith! That does show my age.

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    2. Good on you!

      J d bois

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  12. An interesting piece, and fascinating comments, particularly The Book Guide's agreement that the death of the bookshop is somewhat exaggerated; as the owner of a shop himself, he offers a perspective different from mine as a collector. As a Londoner, I have witnessed the sharp decline of the Charing Cross Road - yes, I too remember the coal fire in Ian Shipley's, though he was a curmudgeonly old cove. What's particularly disheartening is that whole swathes of the capital, even affluent boroughs like Bromley, are now devoid of even a single secondhand bookshop.

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    1. Very good to hear of someone else lingering by Shipley's fire...he certainly had a 'way' with customers, but I took this as part of the essential fabric. His prodigious knowledge softened the hard edges ..for me at least. As for Bromley, very occasionally the Oxfam 'classics' section has a quiet treasure trove to uncover. First edition H.E.Bates, Henry Wiliamson and wait for it...Beverley Nichols ...at my last visit. Completely unfashionable. Dust to dustwrapper!

      There's another source of rare books too, these days. Free depositories set up at Tube Stations (Oval, for instance) and in other little nooks around here and there. Set up on the basis of 'take and replace'.

      Jean du Bois

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    2. You have reminded me about Oxfam in Bromley, Jean; I did once rescue a good Henri Rousseau from there. Nothing left in Croydon, I think, since the recent closure of the excellent Croydon Bookshop - which was actually a few miles out, in Carshalton Beeches!

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    3. Very good to know, Nicholas. There's another decent charity shop up from the Bromley Oxfam, further up on the same side ;cannot remember if it is BHF or Scope - books in top-left corner - I remember buying a handsomely dust-wrappered 'Modern Choices 2' edited by Eva Figes (by the way,many of her own works can be found outside Peter Ellis's shop, on his fabled bargain table in Cecil Court). The d/w is by Harry Green and within, great stories by Kafka, Joyce, Sansom etc. All of this bookish driftwood and shingle seems to confirms Mark's fine points above.

      Good hunting!

      Jean du Bois

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