Saturday, June 2, 2018

Finding books in out of the way places


It has sometimes chanced that I have found myself in some out-of-the-way place without a book. This is a disconcerting experience for the keen reader, and recently, in a hotel on an industrial estate, not within obvious reach of any purveyor of literature, I was obliged to read the only thing to hand in the somewhat functional room, namely the breakfast menu. This, though not without interest in its way, did not stretch very far (in terms of reading, I mean: the breakfast itself promised to be, and was, extensive, if unsubtle).

However, on other occasions a chance find in a lonely place has proved to be a solace enhanced by its unexpectedness. Once on a rainswept holiday in Cornwall, and desperate to find something diverting to read, I considered without too much enthusiasm the single creaking plastic carousel of paperbacks in the leaking beach shack which was the only shop for miles around. But what was this? The Adventures of Solar Pons by August Derleth. Some splendid Sherlock Holmes-like detective yarns, just the thing to enjoy while the grey gusts swept against the cottage windows.

Since then, I have to confess to a sort of idle delight in the game of finding something interesting to read somehow, wherever I chance to be. And it is one of the incidental delights of even the smallest, obscurest places in England that it is surprising how often, one way or another, suitable reading matter may be found. Arriving early to meet friends in a minor Shropshire village, for instance, I looked in at the church and found not only one or two paperbacks I could quite enjoy, but also a guide to local ghosts. Later I was able to stroll around in the dusk regarding the apparent haunts it described with an enhanced appreciation, not to say apprehension.

Very few churches are without a printed guide of some sort, and these often make for diverting reading, with unusual anecdotes, snatches of local history or genealogy, diversions upon heraldry, and snippets of little-known folklore. Whether they are simply one sheet folded, or more compendious booklets, it is rare to find one without some points of singular interest, often several.

However, another practice which has begun to become more widespread is that of offering an assortment of second hand books, usually towards the back of the church, to raise funds. One church half an hour from here makes quite a point of it and has several hundred, along with recordings. (Its other attraction is a former Viceroy’s silk dressing-gown, now used as an altar cloth.) Sometimes, admittedly, this may lead to incongruity: one sacred edifice harboured several Dennis Wheatley novels of racy satanism, while in another a biography of Rasputin was prominently displayed.

On another occasion, visiting friends in a little Suffolk village and arriving ahead of time, we went first to look at the church. Here we found in the porch a large cardboard box full of jumbled books for sale, which afforded a most agreeable rummage. Indeed, we were still rummaging when the verger (or was it the churchwarden? A redoubtable lady, anyway) arrived to lock up. Observing the small pile we had accumulated, she invoked the Almighty and declared she had only put them out a few hours before, just to see if anyone would be interested. When we turned up at our friends’ house carrying the spoils, they exclaimed that only we could find a place to buy books in such an obscure nook of the country.

Nor is it only churches that can sometimes oblige the bookless. Another occasional source of reading matter may be found in repurposed telephone kiosks. These elegant scarlet pavilions, no longer required due to the spread of personal phones, have been ingeniously reused by some villages variously as miniature museums, art galleries, greenhouses – or book exchanges, where there might be a few dozen titles available. You may borrow or take one and leave another later.

Some shops now have a selection of books for sale for worthy causes. On one occasion I had walked along the canal to a village from which I proposed to get the train back. There are only half a dozen trains on its almost-forgotten branch line, and, as I had slightly miscalculated, I had an hour and a half to while away before the next one. I recalled, however, that the village florist usually has several trays of books on sale for charity and hoped I might turn up something worthwhile there. I was in luck: it yielded Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of An Infantry Officer, certainly absorbing enough to take back and enjoy on the wooden bench at the little wayside halt, while reflecting that the quiet scene, full of birdsong, might have appealed in its rural tranquillity to the author of the book.

It’s also possible to get second-hand books at some railway stations. When I similarly allowed too much time to catch my train at Oxford station, I was gratified to find that in one of the waiting rooms there were a dozen shelves of books on sale for charity, including no less than five volumes of Jacobean tragedy. These (I admit) I passed over in favour of a history of English glass, a subject that had caught my interest after reading P M Hubbard’s splendid grotesque novel, A Hive of Glass, about the quest for a very rare goblet. Thus it is that, when a suitable occasion arises, I shall be able diffidently to mention, “Ah, yes, Early English Glass. Studied it at Oxford.” “Balliol?” “No, Great Western.”

Mark Valentine

9 comments:

  1. Do you have them in Britain? -- Here in the States, little book cupboards on posts have spring up in the past few years. They often have a notice reading "Take a book -- return a book," which is ambiguous: is one supposed to return the particular book one takes? I don't think that's what is intended, but rather that the meaning is "You are welcome to take a book(s) and may donate a book(s)." I know of three or four of these sidewalk cupboards in my hometown of Ashland, Oregon, and three here in Mayville, North Dakota, also. Perhaps I'll put one up myself sometime.

    Dale Nelson

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  2. What a fascinating and engaging post. I keenly remember idly walking through a fine old village in South Devon, a few years ago, noticing an imposing white house on the side of the road as it tapered off up to the hill and the sandstone cliffs. Behold, in the porch, complete with a bench each side were three cardboard boxes of books with a battered 'donations welcomed' notice scrawled on paper sticking out of one of them. Something made me dart over immediately .....for there was the familiar scarlet block spine of Henry Williamson's The Golden Virgin, ( sixth vol in the wonderful 'A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight'). It was a mint first edition minus the d/w! A glorious find especially as my companion (father) was the HW buff.

    Boxes on walls? - there's one in Van Gogh Walk in Lambeth, South London - and it has given forth of generous literary bounty. I remember a mint copy of Charles Williams:Poet of Theology by Glen Cavaliero falling comfortably into my hands one Saturday from this odd little painted box with a glass door hidden on the wall and occasionally outside private dwellings on a summer's early Saturday morning, one may find odd boxes left out by householders eager to dispense with the odd tome or two. Such occasions usually evoke disappointment but occasionally produce gems such as a perfect U.S. first of American Tabloid by James Ellroy and on another occasion, some excellent Virago editions all in their verdant green. The nicest was a mint copy of William Gerhardi's ' Resurrection'. Blessed be.

    Oh and yes, I did leave a generous donation for The Golden Virgin and always replenish the little box on the wall nestling in the ivy, in Lud's fair heart.

    Jean du Bois

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  3. Stamford Brook tube station in London has for some time boasted a bookcase, over which is a copy of the underground roundel logo emblazoned "Stamford Books". Travellers can leave books and/or take any they find there. Of course one finds the ubiquitous Dan Brown, but interesting things turn up, such as a stack of old copies of Ian Fleming's Book Collector magazine, Dennis Wheatley paperbacks from the 70s, and sometimes really ancient tomes. My last find was John Williams's Into The Badlands, a record of travels in the USA interviewing noir writers like George V Higgins and James Ellroy. I was dismayed to find the shelves empty the other day for the first time ever. So if passing by please donate - better still, encourage your local station (or tube station if in London) to start their own free library.

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  4. Lovely piece. When I am forced to visit malls, I sometimes wander through the furniture sections of department stores and look at the books used as part of the displays. I often find one or two that I then ask if I might have or purchase. Usually, the managers just say "take them." I remember finding a first edition of Larry McMurtry's "The Last Picture Show" in one. Of course, thrift stores and library book sale rooms are always worth a quick look. Over the last few years in the U.S. you also frequently come across little bookhouses--some look like mailboxes on posts, others are more box-like--at which you are invited to take a book or leave a book. There are three in my own neighborhood and I've sometimes found interesting titles, while leaving unwanted page proofs in return. Some of my neighbors can thus read a future best seller a month before it's published.--md

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  5. The serendipidous book must always offer a vivid Proustian experience of where and when. My favourite,dating back to my very early teens, involved rooting about in a neighbour's wash-house (the washing machine had not yet been discovered in Norfolk, but on our council estate the houses were still built with the generous addition of an outhouse where, in a copper boiler, the housewife could subdue dirty linen by bashing it with sturdy wooden tongs.) Like most such edifices, this one contained a quantity of old flower pots and Pre-Diluvian spiderwebs, but among the odd broken plate and deflated ball I found, in the distinctive brown cover used by early Penguin paperbacks for their translations from the Greek, a copy of the Philip Vellacott translation of Aeschylus' Oresteian Trilogy. Given that the more advanced readers on our estate might be proud of aspiring to a weekly does of The News of the World, the presence of this one particular volume haunts me still. Of course, I wiped off the dust and took it to my heart, which is no doubt why I can no longer find it, though rolling sentiments such as "They sent forth men to battle, but no such men return; and home, to claim their welcome, come ashes in an urn" have long since moulded my outlook on life. I often wonder how different things might have been had that outhouse at number 25 yielded up Euripides rather than Aeschylus!

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    1. Euripides trousers, you mend and washa dese trousers in da outhouse.Sorry, couldn't resist.

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  6. Thanks, everyone, I've enjoyed reading your accounts of books you have found in unexpected places.

    Mark

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  7. There's a thrift store in The Hague that seems to perpetually stock Alfred Kubin's The Other Side ( a different printing each time i was there ). It had me imagining a kind of print-on-no-demand machine hidden in the shelves, producing copies of tattered old books, prefab 2nd hand.

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    1. Sounds like a good idea for a story, Ibrahim. I hope you'll write it!

      Mark

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