Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Secondhand Bookshops in Britain

The most useful and comprehensive guide to secondhand bookshops in Britain is The Book Guide, ironically but inevitably an online resource. I consult this whenever I visit a new place or revisit old haunts after an absence, so that I have a good idea of what bookshops might be found there. In the tradition of the enigmatic bookhound Drif, the guide also publishes readers' comments on bookshops, sometimes effusive, but not infrequently quite pungent.

The Guide has just announced a melancholy figure. The news item in the Shops section tells us: “I’ve just closed my 500th secondhand bookshop” – meaning, of course, that the guide has just reached that figure in its continuing record of closures and (less often) openings, since it began in 2001. Allowing for some that came and went unrecorded, this suggests about 40 secondhand bookshops are closing each year.

However, we’re more cheerfully reminded that the Guide still lists 1,176 secondhand bookshops. It adds that 225 of those are run by charities. It also tends to interpret “bookshop” broadly, so the figure includes some premises only open by appointment, and some general antique centres that sell secondhand books – in my experience, these can sometimes have quite small stock.

Even so, this works out as about one secondhand bookshop every 80 square miles. In practice, of course, the spread is uneven. The Guide’s handy format of listings by regions, then counties, shows how desolate some parts are – or appear to be, unless they have secret bookshops in obscure quarters as yet undiscovered. Even some large cities don’t have a single secondhand bookshop anywhere near the centre, except charity bookshops.

But there are still quite a few parts of the country where the enthusiastic reader or collector could easily spend a week visiting secondhand bookshops within a reasonable radius – using, say, York, Norwich, Edinburgh or Hay-on-Wye as a base, for example. And there are even more where a quite crowded weekend would be needed to visit them all. I know, because I’ve sometimes done it. Further, the Guide, though a splendid source, is not of course infallible - it's always worth asking around.

It's also worth adding that even bookshops, interpreted generously, are only one part of the secondhand book scene in Britain. The Book Guide also lists book fairs and auctions, and as well as the established ones here it’s not uncommon to find locally organised fairs.

Some churches also now have secondhand books for sale – perhaps only a few boxes, in the porch or under the tower or next to the postcards and parish newsletters and the faded black-and-white guide written by a former parson forty years or so ago. I’ve often been delighted, in some quiet village with no shop or inn or other facility, to find the church has unexpectedly interesting reading matter with a faint odour redolent of pew-polish or beeswax candle still lingering about it.

If fetes, jumble sales, public library sales (alas) and bric-a-brac shops and sundry other places are added, it's still possible to find secondhand books passing from hand to hand in all sorts of odd, out of the way and unexpected corners of these isles.

(Image of City Books, Rochester, one of the locations for the film The Last Bookshop).


  1. Quite interesting stuff, MV. I am certain that the percentages for U.S. bookshops are similar. Any American collector at all serious about browsing for and finding books for their collections "in the flesh" lament the loss of many favorite bookshops over the years and shudder at their replacements. There are few, such as The Strand in NYC and Brattle Books in Boston. For the adventurous and overly optimistic, there are dusty charity shops with heaps of rubbish to paw through. There are the hipster havens of coffee shop/book shop combinations where the books are mostly cast-offs from some other sad bookish venue where they did not sell: church sales, library sales, garage sales, etc. American bookshops that carried a good general stock of interesting books in lovely condition are so rare that when one does come upon one it is nostalgia that drives one indoors. After all, it seems the bookish reader, after exhausting every online resource to find his desired book, may, after every mundane excuse is put aside, drive one or two miles to seek out the one, clinging secondhand bookshop left in the area. The problem is that the general shop is competing with the internet book sites where they can not only immediately find the book in question, but choose one that is priced lower than the others. It seems somewhat better if one collects rare and unusual books, though the wonderful crop of wise and intelligent dealers seldom have open shops. For most collectors, alas, attending rare book shows is the only remaining venue to see rows and rows of interesting and well curated books once seen gracing the shelves of the great lost bookshops. As an American, it is my opinion that this country has nothing to compete with London(Cecil Court, especially) in terms of anything remotely similar to the bookish hunting grounds of yore.

  2. It appears to me that the used book stores began to go out of business some years before the Internet really took off in 1995. Why that should be so is an interesting question. It seems to me that an argument can be made that this decline in the number of bookstores was contemporaneous with a national decline in literacy, and the rise of other forms of mass amusement such as video games. In addition, it also seems to me that there has been a decline in the number of mid-tier authors who appealed to a wider audience. The publishers today do not seem to want to have to deal with mid-tier authors, who can return only a modest profit; all they want are the blockbusters who can return a large profit; in this, the publishing corporations are just following all the other corporations who are only interested in maximizing short-term profits to satisfy their masters on Wall Street. But if you reduce the number of different types of books, you also reduce the potential number of book buyers, and therefore reduce the viability of used book stores, which need to cater to a wide variety of tastes to stay in business.

    On the other hand, I don't see why used bookstores are not taking advantage of the world market which the Internet gives them for potential purchasers. I know for a fact that there are books for which I hunted for decades without success by visiting brick and mortar book stores, but which became instantly available to me on line and at affordable prices.

    In other words, I think the days of high prices for used books are over, both because of Internet competition and also because of print-on-demand operations. When I look at Internet prices, I notice that books prices at more than $40 just sit there, and something priced above $80 hardly ever sells at all (depending on the book). On the other hand, a book of reputation in the $30 range is fairly rapidly sold. In other words, if the used book stores are willing to adapt, they will find that they can make a higher profit by reducing their prices and increasing the volumes of their sales. That is the effect of having the world as your market place.

    It also strikes me that on line prices from British book stores are generally much higher and not competitive when compared to American prices. I think that British book stores have not really been adapting to the new situation and so are going under due to a lack of adaptability.

    1. >It appears to me that the used book stores began to go out of business some years before the Internet really took off in 1995.

      This really started (in the US at least) in the late 1980s, as rents for storefronts grew too large for a bookshop to meet. In New England, at least, there was around this time a rise in Book Barns---large bookstores in rural out-of-the-way places. Delightful things! But in most areas of the US, the population is spread out too much, and the once previously viable nearby bookstores just disappeared. I remember a really great bookstore in Elkhart, Indiana, that found by 1997 or so they were doing better with internet sales than with having an open store. So they packed everything up and moved to the Ozarks, planning to sell online only. I don't know how they did---- that model might have worked well into the early 2000s, but I doubt that's a good prospect nowadays.

  3. They are out there, just not so easy to find. Last year I located 3 Nigel Kneale QUATERMASS books I had been searching for 30 years in one used bookshop. And the prices were quite good.

  4. I'm excited to learn of this resource for used books in the UK. I'll definitely make use of it when I plan my next trip over the Atlantic.

    Just completed a trip to Washington and I can tell you the used book store is alive and well in that state and not just in the Seatlle area. I visited five (two in Seattle) and saw many others in different cities and towns between Ilwaco on the Long Beach peninsula and Port Townsend way up north. Sadly, I couldn't get to all of them because many were closed on the one Sunday I reserved for book shopping. I'm not only a book addict but a heathen who expects used bookshops to be open on that seventh day of rest.

    1. Seattle is indeed still somewhat of a haven for used book shops. We also have the Esoteric Book Conference once a year, which boasts quite an impressive book fair along with a dozen or so lectures by speakers from all over the world. The proprietor of the conference used to run the most fantastic little bookshop down in Pioneer Square, right next to Richard Bishop's shop, both of which were packed to the gills with rare and amazing finds at all times - those were the days!