How I buy books

I'm having a bit of a clearout at home. Stuff has got to go. And "stuff" includes books. And that means making some hard decisions. Now, I've probably got an active hoarder gene. I'm not in TV documentary league; I haven't gone full Trebus or anything like that, but things tend to accumulate around me. Most of this is good; stuff brings with it comforts, after all. But too much is too much, and when the shelves buckle and when the window ledges that you've co-opted into bookcase usage fill up and with that block out the light, then it's time to get some volumes shifted.

So why am I still buying books? If you're bailing out your lifeboat you don't pour water into the vessel, do ya?

Take this weekend for instance. I was away for a couple of days and, as usual, I took a book (just the one) with me for writing/research use as well as my Kindle onto which I'd loaded a couple more novels in the series of New York detective books that I'm reading at present (the Matt Scudder books by Lawrence Block, just so you know).

However, I knew that I was going to buy another paperback while I was away. The new David Mark - Taking Pity - which was fresh out in paperback last week. Mind you, I couldn't track a copy down. Three Manchester branches of WH Smith, no joy.  

Not to worry, though. I was going from Manchester to Nottingham. Nottingham wouldn't let me down. And indeed it didn't. First port of call - the city's multi-floored Waterstones - gave up the goods. And that should have been it. You've got your book. Get out of here.

Oh, no. That would be too easy. I'm in the crime section on the ground floor, anyway, so I get to browsing. I walk over to the B section and find a Lawrence Block novel in the lovely Hard Case Crime imprint that specialises in noir-ish fiction with beautifully pulpy covers. That one falls straight into my hand.

But I'm not done. Upstairs I go.  Nottingham Waterstones is one of those stores that seduces you upstairs with the promise of escalators and the smell of coffee, then lets you shuffle, spent, back down via the stairs.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. A pocket paperback copy. A book that Block's series anti-hero Scudder turns to from time to time. I haven't got one at home; I'm sure of it. That joins the purchases.  

Get out of here before you do yourself more harm. I make it to and through the tills. Back out into the low autumn sun. It's Saturday, late afternoon. I start heading back. Then I remember. That other bookshop, the independent one round the corner. A shop I've never been in before.

I'm there in five minutes, and back out within fifteen. The shop - Five Leaves Bookshop - is eclectic, left-leaning, artfully shambolic. Apparently it's only been there a couple of years, but feels like its roots go deep. I buy another couple of books - a slim volume of John Ruskin, an interesting-looking kinda psychogeographic book that I know nothing about - but they're almost token purchases; buys made as nods of affiliation. I could have spent a lot more time (and money) in there. Except I'm not supposed to be buying more books, am I? I'm having a clear-out, remember?       

A brief chat with the friendly proprietor; I'm given a heads-up on the local arty cinema and the events listings / arts newspaper. I'm already wondering if they do mail-order.

Eventually, I'm home after the weekend, my bag somewhat heavier than it had been when I set out, and my weeding-out-the-books task made that little bit more complicated. Of course, there's a note waiting for me; one of the red-and-white postcards from Royal Mail telling me that there's a parcel for me for pickup. I know what it is. Inevitably, another book.      



Second-hand and other book shops - thinning out the stocks

All bookshops are great. Let's not forget that, They do, after all sell books. Even most branches of Waterstones have a few at the back of the shop. I'm exaggerating a little there - as the UK's last mainstream book chain standing, they have a necessary part to play in the cultural life of the nation - even if it is a little irking to find them increasingly dedicated to toys / film merchandise /  colouring items / stationery / chain coffee shops than to maintaining some depth to the shelf stocks. Nevertheless though, all bookshops, by definition, are good. 

That being said, there's also shops that sell books that aren't bookshops. Supermarkets feature prominently here. Deep price cuts skew the perception of the value of a book, and the Tesco/Asda offer might not stretch much further than the current bestseller lists and the occasional disconcerting pallet of the zeitgeisty book-of-the-year, but they at least offer some convenience as well as - more importantly - putting books out there in public, attracting attention in a more visible way than the window display of your local independent.  

Then there's the secondhand shops.  First, the book specialists, be they tweedy antiquarians or chirpy one-street-back-from-the-High-Street post-breakdown downsizers. Then the specialist charity-run shops, like Oxfam's bookshops. Then your everyday charro with its single bookshelf of Jean Plaidy historicals and early Jeffrey Archers. And then the oddballs; pubs and supermarkets with a windowsill or a dump bin of donations, usually associated again with a charity.   

And then there's the remainder stores like The Works; whole shop units dedicated to remaindered sock, to publishing industry hubris and to retail buyers' folly. Often as not nowadays these have crept into the pound shop chains, where a supply of as-new books are as likely to be found as off-brand liqueur chocolates and flimsy gardening gloves.

And that's before you get to the internet. Or libraries. 

The thing is, books are everywhere. Old books, new books, re-read books, books that should have never felt the press of Gutenberg. All of them competing for attention, for sales, for shelf-space, for landfill, for reasons to exist. 

So, here's the question. Are there too many books? Do all books have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of finding another reader? I don't mean books in the sense of the title, but of the copy. Do we need so many of the darn things? Isn't it time for a cull? Should books be coppiced, like woodland? Sustainably farmed? Or should they, like pigeons and rabbits, be allowed to reproduce uncontrollably because they have some kind of a right to life?

The more I think about it, the more I'm in favour of a little management. I'd start with some second-hand books, and here's why. Too many of them don't produce a return for the writer and for the publisher. Fewer second-hand copies can only be a good thing for publishing as an industry and for writers individually and as a collective. Let's start a little weeding, and let's start with ourselves. 

I spent five years (a few hours a week only) as a books guy in the local Oxfam. I daresay that experience has flavoured my outlook here. I'd guess that a good half of what was donated was unsellable for one reason or another. Too many charity shops end up spending too much time sorting out other people's rubbish. That may be the price of the donation, but it chafes at the soul. 

So, to commit the tiniest of revolutionary acts. Next time you're weeding out a carrier bag of old holiday reads or whatever for the Cancer Research folk (other charities are available), think this: who benefits from this book being bought again? If there's a genuine utility in the donation, by all means make it. If there isn't, then consider your recycling options! 


My novel The Prospect of This City is available either in paperback from me (signed copies if you prefer!) or in ebook or paperback via Amazon.