The mild anarchy of piles of second-hand books reminds us of the simple, contingent encounters we have all missed during lockdown.
Bookshops are back and that’s something to celebrate. Among all the kinds of ‘non-essential’ activities prohibited over the past year, browsing second-hand bookshops may not have been high up everyone’s list of yearned-for normality, but it was pretty high up on mine and going back into a favourite bookshop again for the first time a few weeks ago was an absolute joy.
For some people, second-hand bookshops are the very definition of that dismissive label, ‘non-essential businesses’. Who needs them in the age of online warehouses that can get you any book you want within a day? But it’s because they’re ‘non-essential’ that they’re so enjoyable. The pleasure of visiting a good second-hand bookshop depends entirely on randomness and chance: you have no idea what you’re going to find. You might find a treasure; you might find a dud; you might find nothing at all. Finding out is the fun.
It’s useful to be able to think of a book and order and receive it within a few hours – no arguments there. It’s the opposite of random, though: you get exactly what you want, when you want it. But there are books you don’t know you want and you won’t know you want them until they’re standing on a shelf in front of you. I’ve bought cheap books I’d never heard of because they had a funny title, or attractive illustrations, or a touching inscription in the front – just on the off-chance, regardless of whether they looked any good or not. Sometimes I’ve loved them and found a new author to enjoy, sometimes I’ve hated them and given up halfway through and sometimes I’ve never got round to reading them. But I can’t think of a single book I’ve bought in that way which I’ve regretted buying. They sit on my shelves and remind me of the little places where I bought them, so I feel I got my money’s worth for the few pounds they cost me.