The so-called ‘Kindle revolution’ has its ironies. The name itself echoes ‘kids’ and ‘candle’ , both representing nascent states in terms of, respectively, growing up and the advance of technology. The Ipad is even more throwback-looking in that it conjures images of people reading from slates or tablets, albeit ones with an inbuilt magic. Having established that, I repair to the centre of town, where there are lots of places which sell books of the paper-and-board variety, albeit mostly in charity shops.
But some of those are wise to the technologies of selling. Oxfam, it is well-known, now has an online books presence and many traditional outlets where it sells only books. This followed the unwitting donation some years back of a book worth tens of thousands of pounds. Oxfam, being charitable (and honest) contacted the donor, who must have been surprised as it was to even think that such an unfashionable object could be worth a mint. I forget what the book was about. We are talking material values here, not the value impossible to place on a corral of herded-together sentences. The book that most influenced me in my teens – Maupassant’s collected stories – cost me nothing at a Sunday School jumble sale and giveaway, though it did disintegrate in my hands when I’d finished reading. The British Heart Foundation’s books are a bit more expensive, perhaps because it recognises a thriftier clientele; having bought, the reader is encouraged to give the book back – while forfeiting the money originally paid for it, of course. It’s a form of intellectual recycling. The British Red Cross, at least at my local shop, is frequently overwhelmed with books and introduces a BOGOF system of making its shelves more manageable: you choose two books and pay just the higher price for both.
Collectables shops are sometimes more willing to distribute largesse, but are also knowledgeable about what readers will pay for specialist books, and price them accordingly. Upstairs, though, among the unclassified titles, one may find riches. In one shop I discover an unread copy of Nigel Douglas’s book on historic opera recordings and the singers who made them. For 75p I also buy a hardcover copy of Mervyn Levy’s book on the drawings and sculpture of Gaudier-Brezska, the so-called Savage Messiah. I see this week that a seller on the Abebooks site is offering what seems like no less fine a copy of the Levy book for £27. (In that context, I paid £5 on Amazon last year for a book about Mervyn Peake that included his best-known drawings. In one of my regular decimations, I gave it to Oxfam with a load of other books. I now find it being offered by one seller for £38.95. I don’t know what the 95p means – perhaps the previously cheapest one was £39.) So swings and swings become swings and roundabouts.
My favourite collectables emporium is full of wonders, which vary each time I enter. The books section is as big as a mobile library and the deal is six titles for £1, or 20p each. To include An Adventure in Music, by Burnett James, an Islamic Art anthology, Indian Art in the Hamlyn Colour Library series, the Spring 1992 issue of Oriental Art magazine and Jay Allison Stuart’s Call Him George in a rare and much-sought-after Jazz Book Club edition (about the New Orleans clarinettist George Lewis), I’m willing to take away, as my sixth, Fun and Fair Play in The Hills by Baden-Powell, which I drop off at the Sue Ryder shop, because I haven’t mentioned it yet. On another day, when not much caught my eye, I bought for 20p a Thames & Hudson World of Art copy of Klimt, by Frank Whitford. Bargain and, it cannot be gainsaid, result. I as well as Oxfam can be honest (vibes from that Scouting book, perhaps): in this same shop I saw a beautiful first edition of Field-Marshall Montgomery’s memoirs, on offer for the usual 20p but which I had seen the previous week being offered on line for £150. I told the owner and left the shop smiling – maybe a little smugly, in the same way I smile at those downloaded-book ironies. No doubt the smile will be effaced if I discover someone offering Fun and Fair Play in the Hills for £260.