Hungerford Arcade customers are just brimming with talent. Here we have Stuart Miller-Osborne. Stuart has written a stunning article on what it is like being an avid book collector - and Stuart certainly is!
I hope you enjoy Stuart's story as much as we did!
Attics and Basements
(Confessions of a Book Collector)
Whether one is in Hungerford or Hull, Southampton or Scunthorpe or Bath or Basingstoke, one thing that is likely to be found is a shop selling books. This shop may be a charity shop selling a variety of paperbacks and the odd older book or an antiquarian bookshop selling very specialised books or it might be an antique shop/arcade, which has a section devoted to books.
Here in the Berkshire and Wiltshire borderlands, we have quite a few which for a book collectors such as myself act as a magnet. I can never go to the likes of Marlborough without spending a little time looking through the dusty bookshelves of various outlets in the town. To live in Hungerford and work in Henley on Thames is also a bonus as both towns have a number of businesses that include the selling of books. I have to confess I am an addict.
But what of this condition, which many such as myself suffer from. In its simple form it is no matter where you are a longing to go into a shop that you spot selling second hand books. You know that you are not going to find a James Joyce signed first edition, but to pass a shop selling second hand books and not go is the quickest way to achieve a feeling of cold turkey as you journey away from the shop.
This addiction is not helped by what I term the lucky find. Recently, whilst in a suburb of London I spied a second hand bookshop as I was being driven home. I persuaded the driver to stop (and agreed to pay the parking charge) and whilst he grabbed a coffee, I looked around the shop. Within seconds I had found a signed Henry Williamson in the Two for Two Pounds section of the shop (although I wondered at the shop owners sense of humour) as well as a rather nice nineteenth century book of hymns. As we drove away towards the motorway, I held my objects of desire thinking that if I had not stopped and bribed Keith with a cup of coffee and a parking receipt then I would have missed these wonderful books. Although rewarding I knew that I had not helped myself, I had succumbed to another fix.
Over the years of book collecting I have limited myself to antiquarian books, first editions and any signed books, my study will not take any more. However I have lapses and quite frequently buy books outside of my self set criteria. A1950 book of French Grammar was a good example, which I purchased as the bookshop in Paris where it originated from was not far from the bars and cafes that Jean Paul Satre and Albert Camus used to frequent.
Although I am generalising, we currently have a number of very good programmes on television which are antique based and although I have mentioned this before it is a very infrequent occurrence when a book makes it to one of the shows. I can remember a set of Jane Austin firsts and a signed copy of an Edward Fitzgerald but not many others spring to mind. In a way this is the drug of my addiction. You are aware that the rarest books may at your fingertips just awaiting your discovery.
For me it is not the monetary value (it never has been) but the ownership and preservation that appeals. In these days of stress and frustration what is a better antidote that to spend an hour or so looking through a second hand bookshop be in part of an arcade or a premises in its own right. A year or so ago I found a signed copy a Vita Sackville West tucked away in a bookshop. I purchased it for less than a fiver and felt a natural high as I walked towards my hotel in the city. The weather had been foul that day with persistent showers (it must have been summer) but this did not matter my addiction had been satisfied for another day
Some book collectors will pay a small fortune for a desired book but this is not for me. I often see objects of desire (signed DH Lawrence firsts etc) costing hundreds if not thousands of pounds which if a perfect world would be fun to own, but never in my wildest dreams would I pay the asking price because in my view (which may be peculiar) this corrupts the whole idea of my book collecting. The fun (addiction) is to discover the book you have been looking for (a signed Alfred Williams anyone !) tucked away in an obscure bookshop and purchasing it with your spare change.
Anybody with my nature of addiction will in a very short time soon learn the value of books. Whilst there are many many bargains to be found if you look hard enough you can also pay quite high prices for quite ordinary books. I have noted in some charity shops that if a book is over a hundred years old they quite often price the item at between five and ten pounds, whereas more valuable modern first editions only cost a couple of pounds. Recently I pointed this out to a charity shop worker noting that the Longfellow (a common edition) which had been priced at £9.99 could be picked up for less that £5.00 elsewhere and if you were lucky enough to live in Hungerford for less than a pound. I also brought to the counter a signed Martin Amis first for which they were asking the sum of £2.99 noting that they could get much more for this book. The chap behind the counter whilst thanking me stated that the books were priced by an expert and they did not have much say in it. This peculiarity in pricing was not confined to this charity shop as I have found this inconsistency elsewhere.
The issue of pricing is not confined to charity shops. I have quite frequently visited specialised second hand book shops and have noted extremes in pricing where certain books which are not all that rare (say a John Fowles, Daniel Martin) have been priced at £45.00 for a first whereas you can usually get a good first edition for less than a fiver elsewhere. A good example was an H E Bates first edition which I purchased in a charming café come bookshop in Devizes for four pounds. When in Henley the following day I saw the self same copy in priced at £65.00. I do not blame the booksellers for this as everyone has to earn a living and if there is a market then go ahead but in these cases an addiction is a bonus as you very quickly become aware of the actual value of books.
For all collectors (addicts) there is a High Church where you must go as often as you can. Mine is the Charing Cross Road in London which I visit whenever I am in town. I have known it for over forty years and even if I rushing from A to B, I still make time to spend some time browsing and buying. I was actually in London yesterday and after seeing my daughter and granddaughter onto a train to their home in the Garden of England, I actually found that I had time to kill (a rare commodity). I walked across the Thames towards the South Bank (which I recommend) and progressed in the general direction of Holborn (after crossing the river again). There was a high autumn light and as I walked in the general direction of the Charing Cross Road I began to think how in some ways London was beginning to resemble Paris. There was a thriving café society and for the first time in years the city looked to have been cleaned up. That said, Paris does not have the dreaded Boris Bikes as well as the Rickshaws that further endanger you as you take your life in your hands crossing the road.
In time I was near my church but before this I had coffee at 84 Charing Cross Road which was the site of the Marks & Co Bookshop made famous by the book of the same name by Helene Hanff. There is plaque outside of the premises noting this connection but I doubted that many of my fellow diners realised where they actually were. I felt that I could see the ghost of Frank Doel and as I looked towards the Palace Theatre across the road, which was playing Singing in the Rain, I wondered if Frank and his family had seen the original movie made in the 1950s.
The area around number eighty four has changed a lot since the 1950s, but is essentially the same. The sleaze of the 1970s has for the most part disappeared and the Charing Cross Road has in my view returned to the road (apart from the many modern chains) that Frank would have recognised. Sadly there are fewer independent bookshops (or so it seems) but for an addict like me there are more than enough. What I value the most is that if you look in the windows you could see a signed Anias Nin ( I did not ask the price) or some other very expensive book and in a way could be put off by the prices but appearances deceive. The actual shop level floors for the most part carry rather expensive editions. But persevere for most of these shops have a basement which is usually only accessible by a set of lethal narrow stairs. For addicts this is an added treat (as long as you survive the stairs)
When you arrive in the basements you are faced by room after room of books on every subject. The shops are like Dr Who’s Tardis. In parts of them you cannot swing a cat and always are only a heavy passing lorry away from being engulfed in a literary avalanche, but this is the charm of these locations. One could quite easily spend many hours in them. It was in the final shop that I visited that I really came to terms with my addiction. I had previously purchased a fine 1818 book of literary criticism and was probably about half an hour into a bargain basement (all books £1.00) and having survived the ladder with wheels (the busybodies at the Health and Safety Executive would need to take very long holiday after using this dated equipment) to find my wife a very high copy of Schillers Werke I retired to a deep recess of the poetry and plays section it was there I found a signed copy of a book of poetry from a poet I greatly admire, Walter De La Mare.
I climbed up to pay desk on the shop level to pay for my goods when I spotted a Mary Webb volume of poetry. As I handed a twenty pond note across to pay for my three pound selection of books the bookseller noted that he had had a run on twenty pound notes that afternoon and did I have anything smaller. In change I had only two pounds and I offered to put the Mary Webb back and return after I had found the exact money elsewhere. The bookseller noted that I must have been the first person for over a decade to take an interest in Mary Webb’s poetry and accepted the two coins for the three books adding that is was nice to find a another admirer.
As I walked towards the maelstrom called Piccadilly Circus tube station I at last felt I had discovered the reason for my addiction. It was the eccentricity of the pursuit. The highs when an object of desire is finally located and the sheer disbelief when you find for instance that somebody had listed amongst the crew of a Spanish ship the names of the captains pet rabbits. Many years ago somebody somewhere for whatever reason had taken pains to preserve this information and a couple of centuries later here I was reading that one of the captains rabbits was called Hector.
My addiction is not over, I may have identified it after all these years but tomorrow,as with The Flying Dutchman, I will be haunting bookshops seeking out the unusual and my objects of desire. It will never cease.