October is a wonderful month. The countryside is a riot of colour. The clocks haven’t gone back yet so we’re still living on borrowed time. It’s that special season when a young man’s thoughts turn to scavenging/stealing pallets for the Halloween bonfire, setting off fireworks every f***ing night prior to Halloween and sourcing a reliable supplier of cans of Prazsky Czech lager for the big night.
October weather is wonderful too. Normally the Irish climate is like being in a long-term relationship with the wrong person. In spring, in the first flush of the new, we choose to ignore the warning signs with the doomed optimism that somehow it will resolve itself. An Irish summer, just like the wrong partner, adds to the tension and could potentially ruin family photographs. But by October expectations are so low, they can only be exceeded. A nice October day is like being surprised with breakfast in bed. We know it won’t last but we might as well enjoy it for what it is.
October is also the month when this youngish man’s thoughts turn –when they’re not on OCTOBER 31ST THE SELF-ASSESSED DEADLINE – to bookshops.
As the nights and the curtains draw in, I find myself inexorably drawn to the musty delights of the secondhand bookshop. I might set off for town to buy Cif but then I wake up hours later holding a guide from 1983 called ‘How To Get The Most From Your Personal Computing Machine’.
Although pre-loved and pre-ignored books are sold in a number of places, there are only a few that are true second-hand bookshops.
Charity shops will sometimes have hidden gems but too often they become dumping grounds for Dan Brown novels. Multiple copies of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons line the shelves like sound-proofing. There are also many books on sassy girls-about-town negotiating the dating jungle. They have blurbs such as: “Tracey Palmer should hate Ryan Dupris. He’s everything in a man she despises: arrogant, sleazy and rude. But soon they are locked in a torrid affair and when a chance encounter with an old flame stirs new passions, Tracey finds she has to make a choice…”
These books are endorsed enthusiastically by magazines with titles like BB Cream Weekly: “Sex, shoes and spaghetti carbonara – my 3 fave things… Kelley Spellman’s latest book is a hoot from start to finish. 6 stars!“
Difficult books tend not to be second-handed as quickly as their owners prefer to hold onto them. They hope that a visitor will pick their copy of “The Girl who stole the Kite Runner’s Book and Cycled to Tehran” and marvel at their host’s erudition.
The true secondhand bookshop sits apologetically on the street. The exterior is usually a dark-green or similar colour (the shade that is also seen on the elbow-patched jacket of an inspirational though eccentric professor). When you first go in, it may not be immediately apparent where the bookseller is. You wander in a bit further. “H… Hello?” you ask cautiously, worried that you might find him sprawled on the ground, his body arranged in a bloody ritual while on the shelf a space where the only surviving copy of ‘The Secret History of How Opus Dei, The Knights Templar and Jesus’ Grandchildren Are All In Cahoots’ has been taken by the killer.
Mercifully though, the owner is not dead. They are sitting at a desk that appears to be carved into the shelf of books. They look up briefly and resume whatever mysterious business they are up to. Possibly it is researching a topic that will lead to their ritualistic killing or more likely writing €3.00 on a copy of Ivanhoe with the same stubby HB pencil all booksellers have.
The best secondhand bookshops may originally have been constructed as one room but have long since been subdivided into alleys. The party walls are themselves made entirely of Book. There are some that it would be too risky to browse in case you compromised the structural integrity of the shop. Then there is the smell.
The smell of old books is like… well it’s like the smell of old books. It’s a scent that defies simile but also one that smells like a colour. Second-hand shops differ from new bookshops in that they are not dictated by what the industry thinks the public will buy – rather by what the public – or a clutter-clearing/mourning relative of the public – has brought in. The man or woman who runs the shop has never been able to say no to a box of books in their lives and so more priceless chunks of human achievement are preserved for a little while at least. They also preserve those little intimate acts of present giving “To Joan –with all my love Peter , Christmas ‘87”
Old books also sum up the times they were published in. For reasons best known to myself I overspent on a giant Rand McNally Atlas from the late 1960s. Cartographically speaking it has its flaws and if I followed it to the letter I could find myself answering some p-r-e-t-t-y sticky questions at the Bosnian border as I blithely request safe passage into Yugoslavia. But in its own way it is a historical document. For example it still shows Cork as part of the Irish Republic.
As pristine new books become replaced with pieces of Megabyte, will we still have second hand shops? How can you stack eBooks precariously up to the ceiling? How can you mark the bargain price in blunt HB pencil on an eReader screen?
I don’t want to read the future.
Colm O’Regan’s own debut book Isn’t It Well For Ye? The Book Of Irish Mammies is published on October 25th. To ensure a future (say in 10 years or so) supply of secondhand copies, it is recommended you purchase multiple new ones!