The Loneliness of the Long Distance Book Runner

BOOK: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Book Runner
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The
Loneliness
of the
Long Distance
Book
Runner

Bill Rees

 

‘Mighty hunters of books encompass the earth, tracking down their quarry in all places, sacred and profane, monasteries and churches, castles and palaces; manor houses and rectories; flats, villas, cottages; shops of many kinds; town or country, it is all one, and the earth is all one to them as they cross the sea in swift liners, cover the land by train or automobile, and cleave the air in flying machines. Nor does the hunting end at such personal contact as modern transport opens up to them; they hunt from wherever they are, throwing their nets over all lands by telephone, telegram, cable and radio, so that time and place and circumstances are annihilated in this sweet game, as in no other sport.’

 

The Anatomy of Bibliomania
by Holbook Jackson.

Saint Pargoire, Southern France, 1995

Outside Alan Sillitoe’s holiday home, I am loading my trusty Renault Express van with the author’s donation of books and papers. A raised English voice pierces the incessant drone of cicadas and Alan Sillitoe rushes out into the sun-baked road. It turns out that I’ve inadvertently removed the wrong pile of books from the hallway. We check the boxes together to find that they contain precious first editions and personal manuscripts. I lug the boxes back and retrieve the items that were destined for me; obscure pamphlets by self-published poets and arcane miscellany.

The property is being sold, a fact relayed to me weeks earlier when I was introduced to the writer at a lunch hosted by a mutual acquaintance. He politely expresses an interest in my new venture – that of setting up a second-hand English
bookshop in nearby Montpellier. He tells me that if he hadn’t been able to write books, he would have wanted to sell them. And would I be interested in some free stock…

 

(Distance travelled: 74 miles. Profit: None. Fact learned: Enforced boredom gets the creative juices flowing. Well, it does the trick for Mr Sillitoe, he says.)

Inspecting Heirlooms in the Attic, Bangor, 2001

The lettering. And the colour. Off the page it hits with the promise of a revelation. Page 57 shows Bee at the controls of a crane being used to assemble Kind Dog’s chunky cake. ‘So on this day that was called Wednesday, Ant and Bee made Kind Dog a birthday cake out of dog biscuits, by sticking the biscuits together with sandwich filling. All day on that Wednesday Ant and Bee enjoyed making the birthday cake for Kind Dog.’

The picture and accompanying text of Ant and Bee first entered my head three decades ago. Now its recollection has a hallucinogenic quality. As do memories of early birthdays. Eddy and my mates came, most of them suited up like mini mobsters and drawn to the Real Sweet Stuff, which primarily took the form of a chocolate encrusted Thomas the Tank Engine bejewelled with smarties. Mum’s signature cake.

The pages are still smudged with chocolate.

A Day’s Pilgrimage to Hay-on-Wye, May 2008

Hay-on-Wye is the famous book town with its own literary festival described by Bill Clinton as the ‘Woodstock of the mind.’ With a surplus of paperbacks that need shifting, I intend to hit town several days before the literati arrive. I’d like to fill some of those minds with some of my books. So I go about filling up my Volks-book-battered-wagen with novels and petrol.

I leave Bangor in North Wales on a sunny day and intend to call on a few shops en route to Hay – a journey that will take me through the heart of Wales. I soon arrive at the gates of Caernarfon Castle and breach the town’s medieval walls in order to call on a dealer specialising in mountaineering books. He’s not averse to general fiction, but won’t be buying today. He’s in a hurry to get to some fair and only has the time to express his scepticism on the likelihood of selling books to the booksellers of Hay. Undeterred, I drive off and am uplifted by the gorgeous scenery. Around mountains and through forests, I wend my way to Dolgellau, a small market town situated at the foot of the Cader Idris mountain range in south Snowdonia. In the town is a charming bookshop whose owner still has an apparent market for cricket books. She buys a box of Huttons, Evans, and Boycotts mixed in with the occasional Wisden. It turns out that her son runs the Dyfi Valley bookshop in nearby Machynlleth. I recall having sold him a rare book on archery. The other bookshop in Machynlleth is called Coch-y-Bonddu Books (named after a Welsh dry fly) and they are international dealers in books on angling. They have bought specialist books on salmon fisheries from me, but I have nothing to tempt them today.

A red kite hovers at eye level while I drive along a pass before Machynlleth where I stop only for a late lunch. It’s past mid-day and I must be wary of the distracting scenery. Grabbing a lamb oggie, I am soon back on the road, and an hour later, I am seeking out The Great Oak Bookshop in the streets of Llanidloes, a town with timber framed buildings. It’s easily found but the owner expresses not the slightest bit of interest when I speak of a car full of books. No mention has been made of the prices and it amazes me that her interest hasn’t been piqued.

I’ve been dawdling and I need to get a move on to arrive at Hay with enough time to call on potential buyers. The country roads lose some of their charm when you need to negotiate them at greater speed. On the outskirts of Hay, giant white marquees are going up in preparation for the festival. I’d like to take time in absorbing the atmosphere of the town that boasts thirty bookshops. But I don’t have that luxury today. It’s 4 p.m.; the shops are scheduled to close in one hour. In random fashion, I enter shops to speak of the book bonanza lying within my fourteen fruit and veg boxes. Several shop assistants are intrigued and follow me out to the car but most don’t get that far. Their interest fades at the suggestion that I’m in the trade. Sure, they won’t discover a first edition
Biggles
, but the stock is surely worthy of inspection. Several more shops can’t commit because their buyer isn’t in, and I’m beginning to get a little panicky at the thought of having to haul eight hundred books back through Wales this evening. There’s only one thing to do; attack the castle.

Hay Castle Bookshop is situated in the public rooms and grounds of the castle, which overlooks the town. It is owned by Richard Booth, creator of the ‘book town’ concept and self-proclaimed
King. Having briefly met him before (with the greeting of ‘what do you flog then?’) in Montolieu, a French version of Hay, I trudge up the steps to his abode and ask to see him. He’s abroad, I’m informed by a lady at the till. A tactical decision not to volunteer any information about being in the trade pays dividends, for my description of a carload of literature elicits genuine enthusiasm. She calls to someone in the tower and I wait patiently as that someone slowly descends the spiral staircase. A suited gentleman with a distinguished air and walking stick then accompanies me to my car down several flights of outside steps.

I have strategically placed ‘stronger’ titles towards the top of the boxes. ‘Very good,’ is the gentleman’s assessment following a brief rummage. He explains that I can drive up and park behind the castle, which is a relief. I unload the books before the lady on the till explains that she is not in a position to write a cheque. Only the accountant, who makes an appearance on Tuesdays, can do that. I quickly knock up an invoice, which she signs.

Unburdened, the Volkswagen whizzes me back to Bangor in no time.

 

(Distance travelled: 245 miles. Takings (promised): £150. Fact learned: ‘To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’.)

 

(Footnote: following weeks of ‘payment is imminent’ promises on the telephone, Mrs Booth phoned me to apologise for the ‘mess’ she and Richard had just returned to find. A cheque was then promptly sent.)

Emmaüs Near Calais, Late August 2007

Calais, overlooking the Strait of Dover, is the closest French town to England, just 21 miles away. For several centuries Calais was a British territorial possession. Nearby is an outpost of Emmaüs, the French equivalent to the UK charity shop. For many years they have been collecting and sorting all kinds of second-hand goods: clothes, electrical appliances, furniture, and of course books. Abbé Pierre founded the first Emmaüs community in the 1950s with a view to reducing social exclusion in society. Admirable sentiments, which do not, I’m afraid, account for my interest.

I intend to visit an Emmaüs warehouse near Calais and so investigate a developing theory, that over the years English books might have ‘washed up’ like driftwood in Calais, those left behind in hotels and on the ferries. Surely they would have a good chance of finishing up with Emmaüs.

Having kipped in the car, parked in a service station near Lille, I am feeling as dishevelled as I look. The previous day’s 600-mile drive up through France has taken it out of me. I arrive early and wait for a café to open. There are groups of young men skulking down side streets. Such is my appearance, I could almost be mistaken for one of them. But these people are truly desperate; young men seeking food and dignity and attempting to complete the final leg of their journey to Britain. They are probably inhabitants of ‘The Jungle’, a collection of makeshift tents and cardboard structures which are home to hundreds of migrants, predominantly from the Middle East and Northern Africa. Even Emmaüs can’t help these men, ‘
les sans papiers
’.

A local reveals that the Calais branch of Emmaüs is not actually in Calais. It is in a village some seven miles south of the
port called Attaques – a name to embolden the hunter-gatherer. At the appointed hour, 10.00 a.m., the shutters open and in we go. The usual suspects accompany me; people on the look out for antiques and resellable bric-a-brac. Inside the building there is plenty of the bric and the brac and, to be frank, the all round tat. A receptionist, bemused by my accent, directs me to the ‘
livres etrangers
’ shelf. Musty smelling Penguins, unopened Orwells, a couple of Dicks (by which I mean Philip K.) and the ubiquitous
The Moon’s a Balloon
by David Niven. It isn’t the haul I’d been hoping for. But there is one hardback, sandwiched between two Bibles, that is a gem, though not in any financial sense. It is Holbrook Jackson’s
The Anatomy of Bibliomania
. The first sentence reads:

‘Books, the most excellent and noble creations of Man, are, saith one, for company, the best Friends; in doubts Counsellours; in Damps Comforters; Time’s Prospective, the home Traveller’s Ship, or Horse, the busie man’s best Recreation, the Opiate of Idle Weariness, the Mindes best Ordinary, Nature’s Garden and Seed-plot of Immortality.’

En Route to Llangollen, Wales, July 2009

Driving along the A5, the brooding, awful mountains are a fitting landscape for dark musings on the book business. I’ve recently closed down a shop; the venture culminated in a mega ‘all books must go’ sale. Books were given away, first figuratively such was their cheapness, and then literally, to passers-by and charity shops. During the cull, I pictured myself
as a biblio-chemist, involved in some esoteric process of distillation. Book club editions and beach reads were jettisoned. I find that I’m left with an increased proportion of non-fiction titles that command a higher monetary value than most prose. I keep only the books that I perceive as food for the net. Aside from the occasional car boot sale, I’m now primarily a seller on the internet, of which I was an early enthusiast. But my view of it these days is more ambivalent. I can now sell a book to a customer hundreds of miles away. But the technology enabling me to do this is, of course, available to the customer, the middleman cut out.

The bookshop that I’m heading to in Llangollen, a town associated with the Eisteddfod and the River Dee, is a bit of an enigma. Above a greasy spoon café, a former chapel-like building now accommodates a large and incongruous stock. ‘One hundred thousand books’, proudly declared at the entrance to cafe. I spend hours traipsing the aisles, familiarising myself with the layout. There is a great deal of perusing done while a desultory trail of customers come and go. Most are looking for specific books. I, on the other hand, am taking in all the categories, trying to decide on what books are, from my perspective, underpriced.

It’s soon clear that thousands of books here have no potential buyers. Dead authors and illustrators that have long since lost their allure. The observation is a salient reminder of a bookseller’s ongoing fight against obscurity and, ultimately, extinction. There are exceptions of course. The shop’s impressive collection of Penguin Classics is tangible testament that certain stories, ideas and philosophies live on. It’s a struggle to guess which ones from the twenty-first century will survive. I reprimand myself and focus instead on money and how it is to be made.

The shop’s seemingly permanent half price sale makes this possible. The large numbers of multiple copies reveal the previous owners’ penchant for ‘remainders’. Going on hunch and memory, I attempt to locate titles that are both out of print and desirable, the former not necessarily leading to the latter. Finally I spot several candidates.
Occasional Prose
by Flannery O’Connor and
Six Plays
by Soyinka at £1.50 a book. These can be resold near to the £10 mark on Amazon. I snap them all up. In the children’s section I leave with a £3 copy of
Masquerade
by Kit Williams – worth five times that on abebooks. I might be tempted to read the O’Connor book, being a fan of her short stories. But I have to be aware of when my personal tastes influence ‘business’ decisions.

I spend £65 in total and return to Bangor to price and list the books on the net.

I should be able to triple the outlay in time. How much time exactly is anyone’s guess, which is why the margins have to be so high.

I’ve made one mistake, seduced by the bulky seriousness of John Lloyd’s
History of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union
, which seemed good value at £6. It turns out that were plenty of copies going for less money on Amazon, some priced as low as you can get. One penny. It’s become a significant trend, especially with paperbacks, to set them for sale at a single penny. In listing a book, software programs can automatically undercut all other copies of the same title. The result is an ineluctable slide in price, but some dealers are still able to turn a profit on the postage.

 

(Distance travelled: 100-mile return trip. Profit (projected): £295. Fact learned: Thomas the Tank Engine is alive and well and tooting in mid Wales.)

Barnardo’s Charity Shop, Caernarfon, 2002

Falling into conversation with a volunteer on the till, I learn that he, a well-dressed pensioner, is an old camera enthusiast before he realises what brings me into the shop. He wastes little time in requesting an atlas that designates countries of the British Empire in pink. For some time, rifling through the bags of shop donations, he’s been on the look out for one to give to a friend.

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