Saturday, 17 January 2009

The Second Hand Trade

The second-hand book trade is not what it was. Nothing like. In the honesty bookshop in Llanwrtyd Wells situated in a street where almost everything has closed down there’s a sign. It’s affixed to a container with a slot in the top. It reads: “Honesty Box – Hardbacks £1 Softbacks 50p.” Below it is taped a second sign. This one says “Someone is putting lighted paper into this box. This is very dangerous and I shall try to find the person responsible.” Other than having a slightly singed look the stock seems not to have changed much since I was last here twelve months ago. Copies of the Cyfansoddiadau from 1948. Britain a 1984 Guide. How to Use A Microwave, in two volumes. And eight copies of Nigel Jenkins’ Writers of Wales essay on John Tripp. I buy the lot. Inside they are all stamped as imperfect.

There was a time when second hand books were actually worth something. Hardbacks could change hands at several pounds a time. Second hand stores across Cardiff were full of copies of Stewart Williams’ Cardiff in Old Photographs series at a tenner each. Shoplifting from bookstores was something worth doing. In Cardiff Market the paperback stands were laden with desirable review copies unloaded by journalists keen on supplementing their meagre incomes. Walls of Mills and Boon romances, war books, sci-fi and horror – going back out as fast as they came in.

In the shop I ran, Oriel on Charles Street, we had a case of slightly damaged and second hand books at 5p each were left in the street and passers-by asked to help themselves. To pay you had to come inside where you might see something else you fancied. Many did. We even forgave the chancer who came buy on a bike and made off with the lot strapped to his back mudguard. It cleared the space for us to start again.

A famous poet is rumoured to have wandered by this box of earthly delight and found one of his own books inside. When he opened it he discovered it to be a signed copy. “To mum. Lots of love ” it read.

Like houses the value of books has plummeted. Supply has outstripped demand to the extent that many otherwise desirable creations are now seen as useful only as raw material for insulation. The second hand bookstores of the city are in retreat. None left in Bridge Street, nothing in Caroline Street. The Hayes has been reduced to restaurants plus a single sex shop only. Capital Bookshop, that oasis of the rare and desirable, hangs on in the Morgan Arcade. Everything else is either in the dump or on the internet. Thinking of selling off what you no longer need? Best of luck.

A version of this blog appeared in the Western Mail on 17th January, 2009

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Zim - Just About Hanging On

Reading about a million percent inflation is one thing. Dealing with it is something else. In Bulawayo, south west Zimbabwe, largest city in Matabeleland, there’s a publisher who has given up the idea of selling books for money. What’s the point, Brian Jones tells me, you get a cheque from the bookseller, the bank takes a week to clear it and by that time inflation has made it worthless. Bulawayo might be away from Mugabe’s sight but not his touch.

‘AmaBooks hangs in by its teeth. Those and the dedication of its owners Jane and Brian who see literature as the one salve still available to them in a universally deteriorating world. Long Time Coming, their latest collection of “short writings from Zimbabwe” offers a snapshot of what, with considerable understatement, they call “this turbulent period in history”. The book has been financed by the Swedes, the French and the Dutch. The British Embassy loaned a laptop. Production was not without its challenges. ‘Ama’s computers blew when the electricity supply surged to levels dangerous enough to fry birds. Power cuts, locally known as “load shedding” have proved impossible to contain. The telephone and email have collapsed. Transformers blow up spectacularly and are visible for miles across the bush. Paper is as rare as a caring state.

When the books do appear selling them is not even contemplatable. If the choice is between a book or a loaf of bread then the bread always wins. Brian and Jane give their publications away instead. Back at base the water supply, delivered via electric pump from a borehole, has ceased. No power. Outside a bush fire rages. Beyond cholera threatens. Living on the surface of Mars would be easier. But ‘ama continues because its owners won’t give up.

In the new book are a fair roster of Welsh authors – visitors to Zimbabwe who have managed workshops there and written about the country, its colonial past and its medieval present. Ian Rowlands, Lloyd Robson, Owen Sheers. Among the native contributions reality stands behind a thin fictional veneer. But the horrors are obvious. Christopher Mlalazi, Raisedon Baya and Mathew Chokuwenga are brave men. Already Mugabe’s thought police have closed down Mlalazi and Baya’s play Crocodile of the Zambezi. But they’ve yet to get to Long Time Coming.

In these bleak stories death stands everywhere – AIDS, drought, disenfranchisement, desperation. Western political freedom has not worked for Zimbabwe. “Bloody men. Bloody chicken buses. Bloody poverty. Bloody Zimbabwe”, writes Linda Msebele in a tale where water supply fails, shoppers riot and days fill with violence and repression. Yet even she manages to end on a flicker of hope. Light remains in the human soul. Ama Books need all the support they can get. Try the African Books Collective or Amazon. Try now.

An earlier version of this piece appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail