I have something to confess. I am a second-hand bookshop addict.
On a recent trip to Melbourne I stumbled across Artisan Books on Gertrude Street. It was bitingly cold and Artisan glowed with rich yellow light. How could I possibly refuse? Inside art and architecture hardbacks with gorgeous slipcovers competed for attention, and I whiled away a pleasant half an hour there. The discovery of a new bookshop is always a pleasure, but it got me thinking about how it’s the second-hand variety that really seduce me.
If I’m after a recent release I’ll head to any one of a handful of shiny stores. And there’s certainly nothing like that intoxicating new book smell, but for browsing pleasure give me a second-hand bookstore any day. It’s the anticipation of discovery, the thrill of the search as you rummage through a precarious stack of randomly grouped books. But it’s also the material pleasure of it. Creased spines and thumb-worn pages, these books have memories.
From one Gertrude to another. Years ago, when a bunch of our friends were living in Bondi, during every visit I would always find a way to steal time in Gertrude & Alice. Here I found my version of heaven listening to Ella Fitzgerald, drinking coffee and eating orange cake at the long tables, or perching on stools that looked out onto the body-beautiful cruise of Bondi’s main drag. The ceiling to floor bookshelves were full of second-hand books piled any which way, and those that didn’t fit lay in higgledy stacks everywhere. It was all very languorous, as Bondi is. Newspapers flapped lazily in the thick, salty air. Writers sprawled themselves unapologetically across the tables. You could lounge there for hours drinking coffee from mismatched cups and reading their books and no one seemed to care. I don’t know how they made any money.
Some years ago I discovered another gem of a place in Katoomba with a perilous staircase leading to an upstairs rabbit warren of shelving. During a residency at the nearby Varuna Writers Centre I spent an hour or two procrastinating there. At the counter I vaguely recall having a lengthy conversation with the owner about Doris Lessing. As we spoke the sky cracked open. He lent me his umbrella. The place must have done me some good because when I returned to Varuna words started pouring from my pen. I almost forgot to return the brolly.
Back in Canberra my favourite is Beyond Q. It boasts three kilometres of second-hand books and yet manages to avoid the feeling of a warehouse. The occasional Persian rug is scattered across the floor, art across the walls, and the café, snuggled into a corner, is warm and lamp lit – the perfect place to read or write. You can recline on a chaise lounge or sink into old squishy chairs upholstered in taupe velvet. There are two pianos (which get played by musos who are welcome to jam anytime), and their coffee (which is strong and very good) is served in silver mugs that appear almost medieval. It’s the ambience as much as the books that I come here for.
To get to Beyond Q you descend stairs from street level and find yourself underground. There’s something about this that adds to its pleasure. As if it’s a secret otherworldly location only a select few are aware of. Perhaps its appeal also lies in a nostalgic link to a basement bookshop on Melbourne’s Swanston Street that I often visited as a teenager (it’s still going, although half of it is now dedicated to crime fiction). After eating a three-dollar meal amid the warm fug of the Hare Krishna place a few doors down, my literary bestie and I would descend into the chilled bookshop. The owner wore fingerless gloves and had a boxy blower heater at her feet. We would carefully stretch out our dollars, favouring purchases like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Jim Morrison’s collections of poetry. In fact, I think my addiction with second-hand bookshops began here.
According to several colleagues of mine, the ‘best bookshop in the world’ is to be found in Portland, Oregon. Sadly, I have not been there myself, but Powells certainly sounds like the Shangri-la of all bookshops. For starters it takes up an entire city block. It boasts 1.6 acres worth of shelves where new, used and out-of-print books cohabit. Named the City of Books (well, you can see why), it offers more than one million titles. Now if only I could get myself a ticket there.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, small cubby hole-like bookshops have their own appeal. The best are the kind that have a mind of their own, appear to have grown organically, slowly but steadily consuming their surroundings. And I love the casual find. One sultry summer morning walking along George Street in Fitzroy I a discovered a small bookshop that had unfurled itself from what must originally have been someone’s garage. I hadn’t seen it there before, although on closer inspection a small sign revealed brief opening hours – this was obviously the owner’s passionate hobby. The place was crammed with books, waterfalling out onto the pavement. I bought an old mandarin-coloured classic for two dollars. But the following day when I walked past it had seemingly vanished. In its place was a blank-eyed roller door covered in grafitti – not a sign of yesterday’s happy chaos to be found.
Even in the small second-hand bookshops it seems possible to slip into another plane of being. Perhaps it’s because the owners either ask if you need help and then leave you to it, or ignore you completely (my preference, if I’m honest). You don’t feel self-conscious about immersing yourself in the place, about allowing time to drift.
And time is needed because these bookshops are full of treasure. Sometimes dusty and decaying, but treasure nonetheless. It’s like being given the key to someone’s attic. And occasionally a book reveals an unexpected clue. I’ve found receipts, a snatch of a song sheet, a ‘to do’ list, a slim newspaper clipping, and details of an appointment. Hints at the lives of previous owners, a piece of their history. I find myself wondering about them – who they were, what they felt when they read this book, how their lives danced around it.
Second-hand books have already had a life before you. There’s something beguiling about that. Are you a fellow addict? If so, fess up. (And tell me your favourite bookshop so I can investigate next time I’m in town.)