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  • Richard S

The Great British Second-Hand Bookshop

All quiet on the House of Hodge Sunday morning shift. Sauntering BBB’s (Blackstock Brunch Brigaders) casually browse the window display - but for now their priority is to feed the stomach, not the mind. An estate car pulls up, loaded with cardboard boxes. Probably a donation. Sure enough, the driver steps in with the first large box:. “I’ve closed my second-hand bookshop on Stoke Newington Church Street(1) and you can have all the unsold stock"(2).

Therein lies the sad tale of the slow demise of the Great British Second-Hand Bookshop. Once a guaranteed feature of the high street landscape, every town had at least one such shop. If you showed up in some unfamiliar locality they were pretty easy to find: Rochester(3), Edgware(4), Ludlow(5), Hitchin(6) - all had magnificent charity bookshops, but no more.

The standard weekend-supplement journalistic take on second-hand bookshops is that they are quaint and characterful spots, the shelves stuffed full of valuable first editions where you can quickly load up with priceless incunabula(7), followed by some cozy tea and homemade cake in the café section.


The reality was better described in Drif’s Guide to Second Hand Bookshops (self-published, 1992) “The second hand bookshops of Britain are dreadful and they are getting worse. This book will only tell how dreadful they are in more detail” Drif Field produced several editions in the 1990’s, in what he describes as ”The only guide that’s been there”. The greater part of the books were extended rants on all that was wrong with British Rail and the bookshop trade. He would waste days travelling to out-of-the-way places only to find the establishment closed, it was either the wrong day, lunch, or the place had simply vanished. The proprietors were not let off lightly.


And it was true that some of the owners were eccentric misfits with hopelessly off-kilter retail concepts. One shop - in a rather brilliant enterprising move - charged a 50p entrance fee, but as it was situated in a Yorkshire tourist trap it only tended to attract sightseers sheltering from the rain, I thought that was a good move. A shop in Highgate(8) set up a sort of nightclub VIP rope barrier, to gain access you were obliged to explain to the proprietor why you were there and what you wanted.

Nevertheless despite such a precarious calling (the possibility of turning in a decent profit was practically zero) the owners were generally friendly, benevolent and long suffering characters. My theory is that you don’t have to read the book to absorb all its worldly wisdom, just stick it on the shelf and sit next to it. Enlightenment by osmosis.

Why have most of these bookshops disappeared? The gentrification or rather chain-store standardisation have slowly pushed town centre rents up to unaffordable levels. Every Oxfam bookshop meant one less independent shop. And with Amazon, anyone could run their own (virtual) bookstore.

At House of Hodge we still face the same battle against grim homogenisation and commercialism, but our salvation may be that we are a slightly different kettle of fish: the good citizens of Highbury and beyond keep a steady stream of quality donations rolling in while our small HHH (Honorary Hodge Helpers) army continuously polishes, prices and stacks them on shelves in almost-perfect A-Z order. A beautifully symbiotic flow.

- Richard S, House of Hodge Trustee & Volunteer

Notes

1. Ocean Books. NB: the excellent Church Street Books, 142 Stoke Newington Church Street is still going strong

2. He could not sell them and neither could we

3. Baggins Books

4. Two Jays. Was easily the best bookshop on the tube map

5. Judith Adams. Second hand art books of eye watering quality

6. Eric T. Moore

7. Books over 500 years old

8. Fisher & Speer (now closed)


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