Saturday, 15 January 2011

Buy It Now

Buying books is not what it once was. Bookshops with their hands-on shuffle among the shelves are in retreat. The supermarkets take the cream of the pop tops and sell them like fury. Just released shouts the roadside hoarding. And at £9.99 each this is a price no traditional bookshop can ever get near. Martina Cole, Jamie Oliver, Michael McIntyre, Peter James, Jilly Cooper. You know the score.

On the internet, the purchase interface of choice for most these days, you need to know precisely what you want. Browsing is a dying art. Once there, with your copy of Citizenship Today, a key stage four textbook at several pounds more than you imagined up on screen, you press the one-click purchase button and it’s done. A copy will be with you in two to four days. Left outside under the bush. Or with the bloke next door who by the time you discover this has gone on holiday. Then you spot it. 21 copies also offered new at £0.71 or chose from 7 used at 68p. How do BendyBeckhambooks and Snailryder do it? The profit has to be in the carriage charge.

This is a bookselling revolution. The world is its own Oxfam. As the value of books shrinks their availability spins. How could a second hand store with ordered shelves, paper bags at check out, heated and lit, well lit anyway, ever compete?

Not that the second hand trade, when we had one, was ever really like this.

Fry’s, down in the centre of Cardiff’s Bridge Street, corner of Barrack Lane, and long demolished, was more a specialist in the retail of Harrison Marks’ airbrushed b&w photographic nudes than it was actual books. In those sensitive times, however, and this was before Lady Chatterley, nudes officially did not exist. They were kept out the back. Fry’s centrepiece was a vast table sprawled with previously owned books of every kind. They slithered and they slid.

Among them I discovered Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Alexander Cordell and Norman Mailer. Read as they were found, in battered copies, some with pages missing, or covered in ink markings and wine stains, or smelling of tobacco yet always vigorously exciting. These copies were all I could afford.

I guess it was the reading of copies as I came upon them that pushed my literary education along. The lesser Kerouacs before the famous ones (I’d done Dr Sax and Tristessa well before I found On the Road). Norman Mailer’s The White Negro before The Naked and the Dead. Could that happen today? Probably not.

I’ve put some of my surplus online recently. 10p a time plus £2.75 shipping. I’m Bashobooks. Have I sold anything? Not yet, but there’s time.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #179

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