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