“…My greatest joy is browsing books in seaside towns. There I am lost. The delight of the second-hand bookshop is the delight of surprise. New bookshops are pleasurable but we know what lies within. Yet in the second-hand, who knows what nonagenarian ufologist or furtive philosopher has died and their boxed books have found their way on to the counter.
I am rarely looking for anything in particular. I am looking for everything in particular. Many of my childhood weekends were spent with my father, browsing through bookshops with warped shelves and idiosyncratic cataloguing techniques. Nature and nurture have combined to make me an obsessive.
Desmond Morris once described the finding of a rare book as being the modern equivalent of stalking and killing mighty prey. The tribe rejoices. I am not sure my wife has the same sense of glee when I bring back another satchel of Pelicans and Penguins. Sometimes I find myself taking the back footpath and popping them under the shed until she has gone out. I fear that one day my house will sink into the ground, leaving visible only a chimney pot. Just as John Peel had to reinforce the foundations of his garage to support the weight of vinyl, I may have to call the architects in.
I see myself as an overly self-conscious human being. Hints of paranoia dog me, the sense of being scrutinised, yet that all evaporates in the bookshop. I am mesmerised by the spines – almost unconscious, until I see something with an alluring title or enigmatic cover.
Then it’s the leafing through. Do I need this book? What weight is my rucksack already? Is this purchase worth the extra tingling of sciatica it may bring on? My mind must map the shop. The most labyrinthine are a delightful challenge. When I get to the end of the browsing, I must recall where each possibility is and return for a decision.
Once the books are bought, I retreat to a tea shop, preferably one with an elaborate Victoria sponge in the window, and pore over the new purchases. Inside each book is the hope of a new way of seeing the world; each one is a potential adventure. There can be the additional joy of finding some ephemera left by the previous reader: a pressed flower, a bookmark, an old postcard of Budleigh Salterton sent by “Isobel”, with the story of a beach hut and errant gull…”