There are some good secondhand bookshops in Melbourne. I especially like the one downstairs on Elizabeth Street. You walk down an angled stairwell past the notice board that tells you when the D.H. Lawrence Society will next meet, and at the bottom you find a room of shelves so closely packed and windy-wendy that the books take on the quality of particles, densely clustered, as if you’re walking into a fog or mist of books.
Then there’s one on Brunswick Street that spaces its shelves so widely that the shop feels empty even though it isn’t. The man behind the counter vanishes in this sparse wilderness. And yet the shelves are full, the shop not actually short of books. There’s an up-market one near Camberwell Junction, too, where I’ve overheard a staff member on the telephone talking about her son at art school—doing well, apparently. And there’s a smaller store near Flinders Street Station where the man who sold me John Cowper Powys’ The Brazen Head seemed to brighten when he saw what I’d handed him. “Do you read?” he asked. Meaning, did I read Powys, not, did I read.
But I can’t always get to these places, some are far away, and often I don’t have the travel time. My favourite place to buy secondhand books, though, is not a secondhand bookshop at all. It’s my local charity shop, a large St. Vincent de Paul near the station, 10 minutes away by foot. There’s a pub on the corner and an unsuccessful café next door. Nearby there’s a park for children and a bowls club.
The books are in the back left-hand corner of the shop, behind the sofas, the plastic CD racks, old cushions, and sets of drawers. Everything is worn or marked. The books here live in a democracy of marked objects, they are not like the books in a formal secondhand bookstore, convinced that they are a singular phenomenon, the hub of the shop-owner’s attention. In St. Vincent’s each object is equally a divorcée, chosen once for partnership and once for abandonment. The mock-leather chairs are scuffed and clawed, the sets of wooden shelves are stained with the ghosts of old sticky tape or the scraps of children’s stickers.
There are four shelves of books bent around the corner of the store. Romance novels occupy a certain space, cookbooks another. Diet books go next to the cookbooks. The children’s books are at the end of the bottom three shelves to the far left, closest to the toy section and records.
Charity shops, like this one, are not like ordinary secondhand bookstores. Simply, they are not run by people who love books. The quality of books in these places is usually spotty and occasionally consistently bad. But even in the bad ones you can sometimes find a surprise—And Quiet Flows the Don jammed among the Mills & Boon, or a slim Colette carelessly priced at 10 cents.
Sometimes you’ll find a charity store with a stash up the back that seems to have hidden itself there almost in secret. Books in places like this are middling to good. A bookshelf close to the door usually means worthless books, puffy, stained Danielle Steels that go back to the 1980s and copies of Jaws. You get a sense that once upon a time every household owned a copy of Jaws. Then they passed them on to charity shops. The more copies of Jaws a charity shop is trying to sell you, I’m starting to think, the worse it is.
Small shelves usually mean a bad selection. Then again, I know of one charity shop where the bookshelves go to the roof and bend around three walls and the selection is still poor. They stock topical humour books that have outlived their topic. No one buys them. The three bookshelves have a smell that is not like the educated denseness of the room downstairs off Elizabeth Street, but the low-lying smell of old age, mossy and marshlike, the smell of mould in secret creases reminding you of the fact of books, of these wooden, perishable objects, of the moss that grows in the trees they came from, dying lichen, and all the words that once were.
In my St. Vincent’s the books smell clean and the best ones sell quickly. The Fatal Shore vanished between one of my visits and the next. An old Penguin edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude lasted slightly longer. They’re not in alphabetical order but you get a sense of where things go. The closer a book comes to the corner, the more likely it is to be a play, a biography, or a poetry anthology. On top at the far right they put the books that deal with serious non-fiction subjects such as finance and computer programming. It’s here that you see the drunk and perhaps homeless men who have come in from the pub on the corner. I rarely notice anyone like this in a dedicated secondhand bookstore but here they turn up at least once a week. Their trousers hang loose and their chaps hang down, they’re whiskered, their noses are red, they smell of shirts that haven’t been changed in a fortnight, of old hair, of beer. They talk to themselves, and as they take down each book they announce the title to everyone who might overhear them.
“Fundamentals of Corporate Finance.”
“Essentials of New Product Management.”
It’s almost always books like that. Occasionally one of them will choose a thriller.
“A Time to Kill.”
Once there was an old woman who dribbled on the floor—a glittering dab coming off her chin—a woman, not drunk but demented, wearing snub-nosed sneakers and delivering a speech to a book about rebellious teenagers, holding it with a bent elbow like Hamlet addressing the skull. Later she bought a tiny white softcover picture book for 20 cents, something about a talking rabbit and a house. I didn’t see the title.
The people at the counter said politely,
They waited while she talked some money out of her purse.
“Thank you. You have a lovely afternoon.”
They will be equally polite and unexcited if you buy a pair of shoes, a china cup from a deceased estate, a plastic vase, a raffia mat, a picture of the Blessed Virgin, or a sheet. No one who works here talks about their sons in art school, and if you bought John Cowper Powys nobody would bother to ask, “Do you read?” They discuss the footy or the news. There is an atmosphere of industrial neatness, of a setup organised so that teams of volunteer workers can move efficiently in shifts.
The radio plays golden oldies. Dedicated secondhand bookshops are more likely to play Radio National, a station that bristles with announcers who want your careful attention, but the golden oldies leave you free to browse and eavesdrop. This afternoon I was looking through The Faber Book of Modern Verse, circa 1973, while behind me a man gave his girlfriend a long list of everything he could do if he bought the battered table they were looking at. “I could sand down the edges, I could paint it up a bit, I could do something with that leg …”
“Right! Right!” she said, brightly. “Yes! Fine! Well, let’s get it! Yes!”
He was implacable. “I could get wood-colour putty, I could fix up the cracks …”
“A time comes when a man is afraid to grow,” suggested The Faber Book of Modern Verse. “A time comes when the house is comfortable and narrow.” Michael Roberts. “A world without objects is a sensible emptiness.” Richard Wilbur. Last week in the same spot I opened a copy of Stuart Hampshire’s Innocence and Experience and read—
“Let it be accepted that we have to borrow the vocabulary that is to describe the operation of our minds from the vocabulary that describes the public and observable transactions of social life
—while by the window two women were talking about dresses in voices that carried through the shop, lovely sharp, slangy voices. “Oo no,” one of them said. “I can’t fit into that. I’ve got a tummy.” Somehow that seemed to illustrate Hampshire’s words, not prove or disprove them exactly, but provide them with clothing, so I bought the book, which cost me a dollar.
The price seemed exorbitant. Only a little while ago almost all of the books here were 50 cents. Now someone new is doing the pricing—I don’t know who, since it’s done in the back room, but you can feel this person through their pricing, you can sense them looking at the old way of pricing and saying, “This is mad. This is outrageous. The Iliad should not be 50 cents. We can get more than that.”
Now for a dollar I can buy four Stephen Kings but only one-third of The House of the Spirits, one half of The Shipping News, two of Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, or exactly one copy of the collected Alexandria Quartet, which means, I suppose, that one of Durrell’s four books is worth one of Stephen King’s.
Books are worth less than clothes but more than stuffed toys. If it has been a bad month for donations then there might be nothing worthwhile at all, and so it is impossible to approach the charity store with the same kind of anticipation you would feel approaching a true secondhand bookstore, the anticipation of looking through shelves for your author’s name and perhaps finding the book there that you want.
This is a shyer, vacant expectation, a rootless feeling, the expectation of anything, or maybe nothing—for sometimes there is nothing there that you might even consider worth buying except a shabby Ruth Park omnibus, and even then, not really. You turn it over in your hands because there’s nothing else and here you are with a coin in your pocket—but no, the books at home are already falling off the shelves onto the floor and when would you read Ruth Park?