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Secondhand bookshops

I spend a lot of time in secondhand bookshops. If I ever embarked on a PhD thesis, I’d choose to write it on the forces that propel me into rummaging among old books. All the footnotes in the thesis would be of books I had found in secondhand bookshops over the years. I would also invent critical texts and authors, such as Alexandro James Miguel O’Halloran’s The Mysterious Events in the Bookshop on Igor-Stravinsky Place and WJ De Poot’s remarkable four-volume study of the invention of footnotes, not to mention Julie-Marie Pogle’s magisterial A Catalogue of Post-War Shelving in the Stacks of the Bodleian Librar. And, of course, the recent discovery in the scriptorium of the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi of an anonymous fifteenth-century text – Index librorum probrorum de bibliotheca Dante Alighieri – that claims to list the more salacious books in the personal library of the author of the Commedia.

This is more fantastical than you may imagine. I’m no more capable of completing a PhD than I am of flying unassisted to the Moon.

When I’ve been penniless and faced with the choice of buying food or books, a choice I have faced more often than I care to remember, I have often chosen the books. In fact, when I took a couple of weeks holiday earlier this year, I blew most of my holiday food budget on secondhand books on the first day. This meant that for that first week of the holidays I lived entirely on a bunch of bananas, a jar of tahini and a packet of Saladas.

Still, it was an awesome bookshop, in which I found, among other things, two volumes of Gore Vidal’s essays, Mayakovsky’s play The Bedbug, Robert Jay Lifton’s analysis of Aum Shinrikyo, a recent edition of CP Cavafy’s collected poems, an omnibus of Flannery O’Connor’s novels and short stories, a 1935 hardback edition of a Rafael Sabatini novel that looked as though it had been buried in sand for 75 years where it was chewed by crabs and frequently drenched with saltwater, two novellas by Natalia Ginzburg, and a copy of Elizabeth Smart’s very strange By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

By the way, I discovered in one of the Vidal books that he claims to have invented the term term ‘bookchat’. Bookchat is what you get if you turn on Radio National and hear a conversation about literature. Bookchat takes even a great book of dissent and turns it into your favourite puppy dog. It’s still cute and cuddly even if it occasionally pees on the carpet. That’s part of its bookchatty charm.

The number of secondhand bookshops around the country has severely declined over the past decade, which means that we are losing a certain kind of space, something non-linear, eccentric, disruptive and local. Secondhand bookshops are characterised by idiosyncratic schematics of discovery and geographies of the particular. A Kindle is no substitute at all for these experiences, and in fact opens up vistas of paranoia and surveillance that it hurts my brain to think about. The Kindle is not an object for reading books; it is a tool of monitoring and surveillance. I was given a Kindle for my birthday a while back. I disconnected it from Amazon, loaded some music onto it and jammed it behind the headrest of my ute where it sat yelling out the songs of the great X-Ray-Spex album Germfree Adolescents til the screen cracked. If you think about it, Poly Styrene’s lyrics are the perfect speech for a Kindle.

When I was a teenager I would have done an awful lot for a moment in the presence of Poly Styrene. She was half-Somali, wore braces, sang about Woolies and plastic and the poisonous pressures on young women, and was very funny. She screamed ‘Identity! It’s a crisis, can’t you see?’ and I knew Poly was destined to be my best friend. When she died last year the wormhole that connected me to my alternative future where a newer, better, less pathetic and cooler me hangs out with Poly Styrene shut its door in my face and withered away.

You never hear X-Ray-Spex playing in a secondhand bookshop. If there’s any music playing it will always be a Mozart piano concerto or Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. This is an invariable rule of secondhand bookshops and I assume this is a requirement of the Used-Book Sellers Guild.

The truly great secondhand bookshop, like the great café, is difficult to find partly because in the mind of the obsessive secondhand bookshop dweller there is the map of an ideal bookshop. Like all such dwellers I have secretly dreamed of my own bookshop. It will be called The Weird Little Bookshop and situated in a crooked alleyway. X-Ray-Spex will be on the sound system (fuck the Used-Book Sellers Guild), and all my Overland blogs will be there hand-bound in snakeskin, the titles blocked in illuminated script. They will be priced at $20,000 each, but will really just be there for the ambience. Prices for other books will be scaled according to whether I like someone or not, and there will be no books for sale by celebrity chefs. I will also freelance from my bookshop as a private detective, dealing in mysterious stories as well as dusty tomes, and using my own secretly perfected quasi-Lacanian techniques of detection. I will be like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, but with less social skills and sans Watson.

Though one should not be too blase about the romance of being a gumshoe, even one that ironises Holmes and Lacan. Investigation is always the tracking and discovery of the past, a past that no-one really wants remembered, least of all the person asking about it. It is often also the re-description of an opaque and long-abandoned sadness, the beginning of a series of exhumations. And giving people what they say they want, what they say they have lost, always involves walking them slowly through a disaster area.

A great secondhand bookshop is like a rift opened up in the fabric of time and space. The cataloguing is often arbitrary and idiosyncratic, and the shelving somehow distorts space so that kilometers of bookshelves can apparently fit into a nook the size of your bedroom. The structure the secondhand bookshop most resembles is a labyrinth. A labyrinth and a maze are not the same thing by the way. The way into a labyrinth is also the way out. One progresses to the centre or to some end point, then reverses one’s steps. A maze is something more paranoid. It has no rationale except confusion and disorientation. Theseus sought the Minotaur in a maze, not a labyrinth. If it had been a labyrinth, he wouldn’t have needed a ball of string.

If you’ve ever been into IKEA, you’ve had a maze experience. In fact IKEA is like one of the circles of Hell that Dante forgot to write about. He should probably have put IKEA in the sixth circle instead of the City Of Dis. That would site it beneath the circles of Gluttony, Greed and Anger and just above Violence and Fraud.

By the way, if you want to know how to draw a labyrinth, here’s how:

I sometimes draw them in the sand on the beach at low tide. Don’t ask me why. It’s strangely satisfying though. I feel like a more timid version of Banksy. Or maybe I’m really just drawing bookshops.

A secondhand bookshop’s resemblance to a labyrinth is partly gainsaid by the fluid and arbitrary nature of its organisation. There is no standardised template for a secondhand bookshop the way there is for a public library. A secondhand bookshop is like a labyrinth with doorways set randomly in its walls.

Of course the structure that new bookshops most resemble is the supermarket. They are all depressingly similar, lit up like hospitals, stacked with bestsellers, with shiny and overpriced prize-winners printed on crap paper that is far too white. There’s a sense of a vicious competitiveness, as though each book is only too aware of its value as a statistical item, as a publisher’s adornment, whereas the old books in secondhand shops seem to be very comfortably hanging out together and care not if you buy them. Publishers have long since lost interest in them, and as the publishers’ interest evaporates, so the attention of the reader can be renewed. If there’s one thing that complicates book buying, writing and bookselling, it’s publishers and what they want, and how they perceive, construct and police literature.

But released from its imperative as a nascent bestseller, a secondhand book transforms into something else, chewing its way through time like termites under the bark of a tree. The secondhand book is the freed book, wandering round the world sowing god knows what seeds and leaving traces no-one can see. No-one can track a secondhand book the way that Amazon and Apple can track their digital books. A secondhand book can be resold, given away, borrowed or shared and these attributes, so long ignored, are exactly the things that make them worth seeking out. They become their own samizdats in a way, circulating in ways that the Kindle-marked text can never do. The economy of secondhand books is an invisible economy of ideas and strange, disruptive objects. The secondhand book, discovered in one of those happy fortuitous accidents that only occur in the bookshops where they live, describes a personal and political space that is free from surveillance and free from the dictates of the marketing of publishers. That discovery gives the person reading the chance to be a different kind of reader, a reader more intensely concerned with what he or she can find in the particular, local, arbitrary and contingent landscape of personal experience.

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Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. He was writer-in-residence for the 2015 Mesmerism new music festivals. In 2016, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was recently published by Seizure.

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  1. Nice piece – loved the drawings. I could tell lots of stories about secondhand bookshops, particularly those in the Blues Mountains. Yours is more a thirdhand bookshop in its weirdness, and I suspect, the greater the handedness the weirder the shop, until you disappear altogether in a labyrinthine maze, never to return. Which is why I like Borges.

    • BTW Dennis, if you’d care to list the worthwhile 2nd hand bookshops of the Blue Mountains, I’d be very happy to for you to.

      • I missed this one in the hurly burly post breakout.

        Blue Mountains are definitely worth the trip. There are many second-hand bookshops in Katoomba, Blackheath, Wentworth Falls, Springwood and Leura as I remember. I’m not good on names, numbers and pack drill, and my comment had as much to do with the people and humorous events I encountered on my BM perambulations. Katoomba, which I found to be excellent for both the bookshops and the blues singers singing in the street the day I was there one bitterly cold day last summer- it even has a book trail- not needed though as the shops are easy to find. I remember particularly the quality of the shops through some of the names- Mr Pickwick’s, Chekhov’s Three Sisters- and there was one shop that had storeys of very old and rare books, if I remember correctly.

        I didn’t go to the other towns last summer, but I remember Wentworth Falls and Blackheath particularly, as having very good shops, which is not to downgrade the shops in the other towns as I remember them in the past. As I say, well worth a trip. Cheers! (Another great post.)

  2. The original final line of this post was Borges’ “The universe; which some call the Library….”

  3. I think I want to marry this post. We could buy a house in the country and be very happy together.

    I still don’t own a Kindle or equivalent device. I think one of the more monstrous things ever to have happened in literature is when some copyright owner turned Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude into an ebook, just because they could. I hope the little money they made from that venture moulded and rotted in their bank account. But regardless of this and my many other gripes with the technology, what I’m really mostly concerned about is that in one or two generations it will be the death of the second-hand bookshop. My dreams of not so much owning one as permanently hanging out in one as an old man are fading.

  4. I don’t think anyone has ever proposed to one of my posts before. I’ll let you have the snakeskin-bound copy for free.

    Perhaps I can own the bookshop and you can browse in it. I’ll also need someone to mind the shop when I’m out detecting.

  5. What is it with writers and freelance detection? From Paul Auster to everyone I know, writers fantasise about running such a business on the side.

    Presumably there’s a gritty, hardboiled, voyeuristic (hopefully not misogynistic) veneer to this fantasy, and I wonder how that compares to the often fruitless, occasionally onanistic pursuit of writing.

    Anyway, great post. I would frequently frequent such a bookshop (though I wouldn’t/couldn’t marry it or the post as I already married a tree when I was ten).

  6. Let’s hope it’s not the same tree I married when I was 5.
    I think there’s definitely a post on detectives and bookshops and fiction. I think if you substitute ‘fiction writing’ for ‘investigation’ in the following quote from above, and ‘readers’ for people, might help.

    “Investigation is always the tracking and discovery of the past, a past that no-one really wants remembered, least of all the person asking about it. It is often also the re-description of an opaque and long-abandoned sadness, the beginning of a series of exhumations. And giving people what they say they want, what they say they have lost, always involves walking them slowly through a disaster area.”

    But I think you answered your own question Jacinda. The job description for fantasy detective and fiction writer (also in fantasy) look the same in your words:
    “gritty, hardboiled, voyeuristic (hopefully not misogynistic)fruitless, occasionally onanistic pursuit of writing/criminals”.

  7. I think I’d be an adventurer on the side. Because it’s like reading- you get to experience another world. Now if I could just get someone to pay me to do that…

    • But if you got a salary to be an adventurer, you wouldn’t be an adventurer. You’d be a mercenary. So you just have to do the adventuring anyway.

  8. this post has taken a Gogolian turn – all these lost souls with parallel careers browsing and working in shops with old books collecting dead souls … when you open your ninetyninthhand bookshop you’re back in the garden of eden, where you kill the snake about to tempt eve and skin it for your ol posts, marry her, so solving the misogyny / onanism problem, and the world is a better place because an apple doesn’t exist (which was an orange or lemon or kindle or soemthing anyway)

    • I’m not a fan of cafe-bookshops, but I think a tiny cafe next to The Weird Little Bookshop called The Cafe of Lost Souls would go down a treat. I could have my secret meetings there. And always sit in the corner so my enemies couldn’t get me from behind.

  9. Great post. The human race has a nasty habit of failing to notice when it’s attained perfection in something and leaving it the fuck alone. Point in case, the book. Also, this post had me thinking, for one obvious reason and several others to do with its humorous style, of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently detective novels. Added bonus! Thanks.

    • Yes, exactly. Books are such a great design, and can be distributed so freely. In fact I might go read one right now.
      If books burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit, I wonder what temperature Kindles, er, kindle at?

      • “Point in case”. Wtf? Case in point, even… My brain randomly deciding to rearrange the order of things…

        Kindling. Interesting: the book burners of the future, God forbid, will be what? Massive rallies with Kindle smashing ceremonies… Or perhaps they’ll attend online rallies and willingly share the State supplied virus… Or…

        See, there it goes again.

  10. @Giovanni, I’m wondering if it is first-hand bookstores that are going to close – due to ebooks etc. But surely second hand book stores will still kick around a little (perhaps online!- which is what Amazon does a lot) because I’m thinking the people that buy second hand books do it for the tactility of the book, perhaps much more than those who enjoying buying paper-based firsthand books.

    Stephen, are you really worried about the surveillance etc of online sales. Yes, anything with a gps tracker, your credit card etc (ie, iphone) is going to get something big brother going. But what about all the people downloading free books online (often copy-thefting) who do it on non gps machines etc.

    I’m wondering if people brought up with the internet will one day romanticise illegal downloads the way think about second hand book stores?….

    • Luke, it’s not the tracking of online sales as such. It’s the surveillance of the act of reading, and that fact that the Kindle or Apple-marked text cannot be given away,shared or resold. The act of reading has always been an act of solitary action, and often been a revolutionary one too.
      2nd hand bookshops are places where anything is possible. Whenever I go to a 2nd hand bookshop I have no idea what I might find. The collection of books I listed above, I could of course have gone on line and ordered them. but that is beside the point.  Apart from the fact that a 2nd hand book supports a local economy, the excitement I felt when I discovered Cavafy’s poems in the bookshop was very real. It was as if I had discovered a private line to Meaning Making. Finding 2nd hand books is a way of getting the universe to make causal sense, just for a moment.

    • I suspect (though correct me if I’m wrong Stephen?) that this post was partly inspired by the closure of Flinders Street books, one of a number of secondhand bookshops in Melbourne that have recently folded (among them Basilisk Books, City Books, and the once-mighty Carlton Book Affair…) It seems that business is tough all round, not just for first hand bookstores.

      High property/rental values probably had something to do with it, but also the market for secondhand books in recent years has been affected a lot of recent years by online distributors such as Amazon, etc.

      Does Jeff have any hand in running the Trades Hall bookshop now? I’d be interested to know how that’s going, if it’s been affected by online sales.

    • Second-hand bookshops might survive in the same way that vinyl shops have survived, or rather found a second life, but they wouldn’t be the same, would they? I mean right off the bat if fewer people buy first hand books, then there are going to be fewer second-hand books to sell. And then they might be different books. If everyone ends up having a Kindle, which is conceivable, who would bother to buy, say, John Grisham in paperback? Wouldn’t people reserve their print book purchases to titles where the concept of textual fidelity might have some value (perhaps poetry – see Meanland’s latest) or high-end editions or illustrated books? Whereas one of the things I like about second-hand shops currently, like Stephen, is that you can find a bit of everything, with a healthy preponderance of the commercial.

      • Yes, I was just thinking about that very comparison (books/vinyl) when your comment arrived Giovanni.
        More vinyl is sold now than ever before I believe. But first, the print book will pretty much have to die, as vinyl did. It’s possible to imagine that writers will sell ebooks and perhaps boutique editions of their books, as musicians do now with LP’s. But they have to have a venue to sell from. CD shops replaced LP shops before iTunes existed. There isn’t any intermediate state for bookshops. We shall see. I can’t believe that 2nd hand bookshops will die entirely. If they do I will have to resurrect one myself.
        Which reminds me; when these big 2nd hand bookshops close (Flinders, Carlton Affair) where do their books go?

  11. Actually, no Tim it wasn’t inspired by closure of Flinders books,as I don’t live in Melbourne. But this past year I have made a few trips to Melbourne partly to rummage through the 2nd hand bookshops before they all disappear.

  12. The question I’ve been asking myself is where books go in general? Theoretically, with the sale of books through bookstores seemingly in decline (is this under surveillance, being tracked electronically too?), both first and second-hand, and with people apparently shedding both books and bookcases in their homes, the books have to be going somewhere. From the little I know, business seems to work on the same limitation / opportunity principle Derrida applied to writing (“the relationship between a limitation and an opportunity”), so this should be the opportunity for business-minded people to step in and make a fortune from books (particularly second-hand books). Clearly, people just aren’t buying books in large enough quantities to make small book shops, and possibly large bookshops, feasible (there seems to be plethora, both large and small, in England though). This leaves the unthinkable: book burning.

    Perhaps, too, we are morphing back into an oral culture through social media, and maybe oral computer interfacing or something hardwired to the brain. Who knows? Literacy skills down the ages have been always said to be in decline, I know, but if people begin not to read books as such, then there is no image of the written word in the head, which takes us back pre-printing presses. Spelling is an indicator, if there is no image of the word in the head, you can’t spell, which was how it was for women when they were refused a written literacy education. And I saw a documentary last year about a boy in an African village he was the only one to possess a book. He couldn’t read it, but that didn’t matter; it was an object of veneration, a fetish, for the whole village. Fetishism and a desire for commoditisation going hand in hand. I’m not suggesting, rather than “burning” our old books as I’ve indicated might be happening, that we send them to Africa and other third world and fourth estate places. That would simply be another form of colonisation, and they’ve probably had enough of that already.

  13. Yes, perhaps vast quantities of books are being pulped and crushed, as with the narrative of the Hrabal novel Giovanni mentioned earlier. That would be my guess.
    My local library system discards more books each year than they can sell or even give away. Charity book sales collect books by the palette load, most of which don’t sell. All these discarded books are going somewhere and probably they are going to the tip. Is there a massive unreported deletion of the printed word happening? To make a killing on 2nd hand books one would have to buy them by the tonne and sort through them. For every 20 palette loads of Rowling there might be one uncommon book perhaps.

  14. Stephen, you said “It’s the surveillance of the act of reading, and that fact that the Kindle or Apple-marked text cannot be given away,shared or resold. The act of reading has always been an act of solitary action, and often been a revolutionary one too.”

    How is the act of reading being surveyed? I just don’t get that. I mean reading on a kindle, ipad, laptop etc can be just as solitary as reading with a paper-based book.

    As for not being able to give ebooks away. Well there is the double economy here. The white economy where you can’t forward on to anyone else. And the black economy where is all free and peer-to-peer shareable.

    I do get that in a 2nd hand bookstore anything is kind of possible. Which makes me think this is the book store version of the rhizome, without too many neat and ossifying categories (although there is some of that) and without being beholden to the trends. Yes, it’s the physical browse mode that means you can come across random stuff, in a way that can’t happen via targeted buying (although online stuff does let you browse and follow random links etc). But how is this more like a labyrinth (where there is strictly only one described path) versus a maze (where things could be more haphazard). I don’t quite follow this metaphor.

    Also, you said “Books are such a great design”. Well yes, like chairs, forks, windows and other material designs that have been with us for millennia. It is not so much that the book-as-object is undergoing a change (in the way that car design has undergone change in the last century) but rather than a new medium is coming to compliment-and-even-replace an existing medium. Ala screen media over stage performance. Music recording over the live gig.

  15. Reading on the iPad is in no way a solitary activity. It is an Apple-mandated activity, and an Apple-tagged activity that removes a dimension of the book that 2nd hand books and their bookshops (2HB) exemplify. You are in Apple’s walled garden. How is this like being alone?
    The labyrinth of the 2HB is a labyrinth with holes in its walls (see picture above) not a labyrinth proper. A maze is not really more haphazard but a set of closed possibilities, that always leads back to itself. The labyrinth I drew as a map of a 2HB describes the maximising of space, and because 2HBooks are embodiments of different types of time, the maximise and expand time as well.

  16. A wonderful and dazzling assemblage of comments! Stephen, as you live in the Rainbow Region like I do, were/are any of the bookshops in Lismore? Byron? Bruns?

  17. The only 2nd hand bookshops I regularly visit round here are in Lismore – Uncle Peter’s, and the Lifeline bookshop. Uncle Peter’s is not bad but the turnover isn’t high. Lifeline is great becuaew they have a large Lit section which continually reveals many surprises and they are continually bringing in new books.
    The bookshop where I bought the list of books mentioned in the post is in Ulmarra a tiny village a couple of hours drive from where I live, full of antique shops and one large extremely untidy and dishevelled second hand bookshop that on the day I was there was having – joy of joys – an everything-half-price sale.

  18. Okay, Labyrinth with holes in it. That makes sense. As you say it is in the picture, but I didn’t get that (didn’t pick it up in the words ;-) But really, anything with that many holes in it will prove your point, wouldn’t it? I mean isn’t your metaphor more between sponge vs tube, rather than labyrinth and maze (which are both tubes, one with a hole in one end, and the other with a hole in both and several dead-end tubes along the way perhaps).

    How is reading on an iPad an apple-mandated activity (or more generally, reading on an ebook display machine a company-who-makes-or-sells-to-it-mandated activity). Isn’t reading a book published by Penguin a Penguin-mandated activity? And what has tagging got to do with it (what do you mean by tagging here)?… Stephen this seems crucial to your argument but I’m still not understanding it yet.

  19. No, any image with holes in it wouldn’t prove my point, because I’m not just trying to make points I’m trying to write prose. A labyrinth and a maze are useful because they have a whole range of mythic and literary associations. A labyrinth with holes in its walls is a map of a bookshop as I’d hoped my little sketch showed. And detectives and their plots are often labyrinthine etc etc. And Dante’s Hell is a kind of labyrinth too. And so on.
    Sure there is a comparisonj to be made between trad publishers like Penguin and Apple or Amazon, who all police literature. But Amazon and Apple texts can only be read on KIndle’s or iPads and you can’t share them. Kindle also watch their readers. Any changes you make on your Kindle text (highlighting etc) are recorded by Amazon. Amazon can also enter your Kindle at any time and delete the text without your permission. The entire economy of reading is different. 2nd hand books have become rather important to me, and for good reason I think.

  20. Here be shameless plug for our little bookworld in Mudgee, home of Little Lane Books. Almost everything you can imagine about running a bookshop & the people you meet will inevitably come true in one store or another & some of it in ours. My most recent was a reincarnation of Pythons bookshop sketch, except my customer was focusing on cookbooks. In the end I didn’t have the pre-hindsight to offer him our Olsen’s Bird t-shirt – oh well, next time.

  21. Wow. I just went to Ulmarra 2HBS and couldnt believe my happiness. Best Ive ever been in and I agree with all comments above, I experienced such intense feverish joy, so must be kindred spirits with ye all above. Luckily he had a half price sale and I came away with Gorky, (hardcover and old faded engravings), Boccaccio(colourful hardcover, again great drawings), Tanglewood Tales, and four for me new authors: Giovanni Verga Sicilian short stories, Yasunari Kawabata (two volumes), Bai Ganyo by Bulgarian Konstantinov, and a beautiful tiny old woodcut illustrated Penguin, “The Story of my Heart” by Richard Jefferies, originally published in 1883.
    Its so Borgian that when my husband tried to go the following day, it wasnt there, [or at least was randomly closed on a Friday with no sign despite the hour's drive].
    It doesnt even have a proper name!!! but it beats Berkelouw hands down Paddington or Eumundi …

    • I’ve been going to the Ulmarra bookshop for over a decade, usually a couple of times a year. From chatting with the owner I gather that he just can’t stop accumulating books, hence the enormous stacks on the floor, on tables and everywhere one doesn’t actually need to urgently place one’s feet.
      However, I have to gently disabuse you of the ‘half price sale’. It’s been ‘50% off!!’ for at least a dozen years.

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