Saturday, October 6, 2018

Second-hand Bookshops in Britain, and in Fiction

Last year, I discussed what I described as The Rise in Second-hand Bookshops in Britain. I offered factual, indeed statistical evidence, that their number has grown over the past thirty years. This was contrary to my own expectations: and several readers still found it hard to credit. But I haven’t seen any other figures refuting the analysis.

To recap, in 1984, Driff’s Guide to the Second-hand & Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain listed 942*.

By comparison, thebookguide doughtily run by the Inprint Bookshop, listed 1187 as at August 2017. Of these, 287 were charity bookshops.

Thus, there was a 25% increase in second-hand bookshops in the UK over the 33 years since Driff’s guide.

Even if you decide not to count charity bookshops, in Driff or The Book Guide, there has still been an increase in all other bookshops, though smaller. Either way, the steep decline readers think they have seen simply isn't supported by the numbers.

I can now report, thanks to a kind update from Inprint, that the position this year is broadly unchanged. In August 2018 (after deducting those in the Republic of Ireland), there were 1183 second-hand bookshops listed in the UK, with a similar number to last time run by charities. And within a few weeks, the number opening or newly identified was running slightly higher than those closing.

I sympathise, however, with those who still can’t really believe this continued clear evidence. And I was amused to notice that even as early as 1926 the idea that such bookshops were in decline was already abroad.

In Cynthia Asquith’s excellent anthology The Ghost Book of that year, one of the stories, ‘The Lost Tragedy’ by Denis Mackail, is a gently humorous piece (which was very much his style) set in a London second-hand bookshop. The narrator says: “Mr Bunstable’s book-shop represents a type of establishment which has pretty well disappeared from our modern cities.”

(Incidentally, that might indeed be true today too: the evidence suggests they are now more likely to be found in small towns rather than in high-rent cities).

The piece is also comical for its description both of the dusty, labyrinthine bookshop, with teetering piles of titles everywhere, and for its observations about the proprietors of such places: “As all who have considered the subject must agree, the principal object of any book-seller is to obstruct, as far as possible, the sale of books . . .”

Does anyone have their own favourite fictional descriptions of second-hand bookshops?

(*Note: For reasons best known to himself, Driff did not use numbers 802-824 in his listing. On the other hand, he sometimes throws in a few premises which he doesn’t number, so probably “about 940” is still near enough.)

Mark Valentine


  1. some of those sound lovely. i'll be in london for a weekend soon, would anyone have any such places in the city i could visit to find some nice glue bound worm eaten gods??

  2. Dion Fortune's description of T. Jelkes' antiquarian bookshop in 'The Goat Foot God" is the one that I hold most dear.

  3. Are all the shops listed "open shops"? If you count folks who run "Ye Olde Bookes" as an online business, they might want to be regarded as a bookshop in such a guide.
    Fictional bookshops? The one in Shirley Jackson's story, "Seven Types of Ambiguity." The bookshop in "The Big Sleep," though I think that only the film version features the sexual double-entendres that make the scene unforgettable. Harris Burland's lost-race romance, "The Princess Thora," takes the hero to a rundown, Machensque part of London and an amazing bookshop with an even more amazing owner. There's a terrific chapter in Steven Millhauser's "From the Realm of Morpheus" which describes a library consisting of lost books, e.g. Byron's memoirs. I myself once wrote a story--"Dukedom Large Enough"--about two rival collectors which features a similiar collection. But, these aren't bookshops. Of course, someone will mention Christopher Morley's Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop. How about Montague Summers's "The Grimoire"? Or Cynthia Asquith's "The Corner Shop"? In Balzac's "Peau de Chagrin" the hero buys the piece of wild ass's skin at an eerie junk shop, which seems to contain everything in the world. Somehow I feel I'm overlooking lots of good examples, but it's late and I"m tired.--md

  4. RSS, have a look at the book guide's listing for London and you'll see quite a few to tempt you.

    Antony and Michael - thank you for your excellent fictional examples, all worth pursuing.

    Michael - The Book Guide only includes premises open to the public and not those solely online.
    I think Driff and they used broadly similar criteria, so we are comparing apples with apples.

  5. I would have to say my favorite fictional bookshop is the one in Michael Ende's The Neverending Story. It made such an impression on me when I read it at 14. It holds a special place.

    1. Thank you, Justin. I did not know of this, but it sounds splendid. Mark