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Judgemental spaces

By April 22, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu – SUNDAY MAGAZINE

The special mystique of second-hand bookshops

There are any number of reasons I routinely take shelter in a bookshop or a public library, in my hometown or as a tourist in less familiar cities. These range from the need to find a comfort zone in order to recover my equilibrium and get on with the day’s schedule, to the opportunity to jog my mind and reorder my reading list — there is, for instance, no better way to throw oneself back into the difficult book at hand than to spy another copy sitting enticingly on a bookshelf elsewhere and read a page or two in that edition. Bookshops also satisfy a long-standing curiosity about how people organise their books, and serve as nudge to reassemble my reading in my mind.

Trade secrets

Second-hand bookshops are altogether different, if equally fulfilling. And it’s not only because folks who run these shops, by the very fact of having honed their appraisal skills for buying book collections and pricing them, have a somewhat judgmental air.

This impression of mine was unfounded for long, and based on the odd throwaway remark — such as when I tried to negotiate the price of a second-hand, hardback copy of Christopher Ondaatje’s Sindh Revisited down to at least its cover price, when the bookseller said, “I’ve seen the other books you have piled up. I know how much you’d like to get this book.” But Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller , based on his experience of running Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop in the book town of Wigtown, confirmed the impression, with his withering takes on browsers who stray in.

But there’s another reason second-hand bookshops are challenging. They have different organising principles, and their stock is always changing. As a reader/ buyer, you are aware that there is little time to decide on the bargain at hand, that the book on offer may be grabbed any moment by another buyer. What that bargain really may be is also a mystery to most readers.

Among Janet Malcolm’s essays recently collected in Nobody’s Looking at You is her 2014 profile of New York City’s iconic Argosy book store, known for old and rare books. Malcolm — who once put all journalists on notice by opening a book with the line, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible” — captures the gentle rhythms and attentiveness that keep the family-run shop going.

But one day this orderly rhythm is disturbed when it is found that a signed copy of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace has been bought “for the ‘$1’ written on its flyleaf”. The book, it is reckoned, was worth $400.

You wonder, was the buyer aware of the dream deal? Did he or she care? Or at least notice the discrepancy between the signature and the price?

The three sisters who inherited the Argosy from its founder, Louis Cohen, in 1991 don’t let Malcolm tag along on a book-buying expedition. “We don’t know how you could understand how we decide so quickly,” one of them tells her, having previously said, “It’s the kind of knowledge it has taken us decades to be comfortable with.” In other words, to keep the secrets of the trade secret. But they do share a story about Cohen. He had gone on a book-buying expedition to a doctor’s house, and found that it was so full of books that the owner had been “pushed out… and lived somewhere else”. Cohen came up with a random offer, “a lowish price”, and the doctor immediately agreed in sheer relief. Sorting through the books took time, so when the owner said he had got a buyer and had to transfer the property within a month, Cohen offered to buy the house, so he could sift through the collection at his own pace.

Other tips are more freely shared. For instance, should you ever come across an old copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby , and wonder if it’s an investment worth making, go to page 205 and look for the words “sick in tired”. If they occur, it’s the first edition and the first issue. In the second issue, it was corrected to “sickantired”. No wonder the Argosy’s think tank separates books into “books for reading” and “books for collecting” — and it makes you wonder which category that owner of the rare copy of Disgrace placed it in.

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