Sunday, November 25, 2012

Secondhand bookshops, free tea and cake

I'm not generally a fan of secondhand bookshops; on the whole, I think they attract praise beyond their worth.  Often they are smelly, poorly organised and bursting with overpriced junk that's been bought by the yard. The worst trade on the dubious sentiment that buying old books is both a virtue and a bargain - and that part of the pleasure is fumbling through their dust ridden shelves in dark and labyrinthine rooms.

I don't buy it.

That said, there's a place for them. I'd not have my collection of Wayside and Woodland without secondhand bookshops, nor have been able to replace all my old college texts; some categories (art and nature in particular) have key works which have long been out of print.

The Internet has been a saviour to many dealers, some of whom now regard walk-in customers as distractions from the post. Buying online is quick and easy -  and it takes away the smell and uncertainty of those labyrinthine rooms. On Friday a friend recommended I read Edge Seasons by Beth Powning - I found a copy in thirty seconds and paid 17 pence plus postage.  To be fair, that is a bargain!

But for all my reservations, when secondhand is done well, it can be a delight. The other day I called at Pen'rallt Books in Machynlleth - a treasure of hand-picked stock, with clear and limited categories which the owners know well and can offer advice on. There was a browsing table, a comfy sofa, an exhibition of photography on the wall. And best of all, the selection surprised and inspired; a mix of stylish oddities and classically good, if out of print, titles.

I do buy this.

In fact, I bought two. A copy of Pip Pip by Jay Griffiths, and a wonderful old volume on The Mole by Kenneth Mellanby. The latter is an especially good find - I don't know much about moles and had been looking for a short guide - this one was written in 1971 for the Country Book Club and has a rather lovely cover.

Pen'rallt Books also sells new titles, and even has regular author evenings - I'm (prepare for the shameless plug...) reading and talking there on 6 December.  I understand they also do excellent tea and cakes. So, in a completely unbiased way you understand, I'm going to take back everything I said at the start of this post and dub Pen'rallt Books (did I just mention Pen'rallt Books in Machynlleth again) as my secondhand bookshop of the year.


  1. Wish I could attend. Love old book stores, but some are rather stinky and horrible. Looks like this galley bookshop is a treasure. Shameless plug I must admit )))

    Hope you enjoy Edge Seasons. I mentioned it because I felt, the book reflected the passage from your post "on the edge". Still can't believe you got it for 17 pence!!

  2. I buy the well-organised, buy-in-one-click, but I also buy the smelly choas. I remember with great affection a second-hand book shop in Southampton (Gilberts?) that used to have fascinating old books. I owe a childish desire to become a doctor to an ancient anatomy volume that seemed to come from the age of leeches.

  3. I love old bookshops for the treasures you can find within. Some are smelly and full of junk and rubbish that nobody wants and are usually run (it seems to me) by hobbyist booksellers, as opposed to folk trying to eke out a living. However there are gems like the one mentioned here, still to be found, though they are getting fewer by the year. Two of ours have closed and gone 'online', and whilst I appreciate you can still find bargains that way, somehow browsing a virtual shelf lacks something and isn't the same as browsing a real one, and often when doing the latter, you discover a gem hidden away.
    Good luck with the talk.... now if only I lived closer, what a birthday treat that would be for me. Shameless plug for birthday on 7th!

  4. Now that sounds like a great addition to the high street. In these trying times every town should have one. Sounds like a great find with Pip Pip. I'm sure your talk will go down a storm. Look forward to stumbling across Counting Steps in Hay on Wye or Wigtown in the decades ahead. A good secondhand bookshop is a joy, especially with coffee and cakes.

  5. I wish I could attend. THere is nothing better than books (and a reading!) with lovely tea and cake.

  6. I love a long mooch around a secondhand bookshop, but none in Edinburgh have free tea and cake! Hope your talk goes well :-) Jo

  7. I hope you get a good appreciative audience.

  8. Oh bother! Machynlleth is only 20 miles from us, but I'll be away next week. Sigh.... Hope it goes really well.

    I love second-hand bookshops and many of my books come from them. I remember the Kenneth Mellanby book from my years as a librarian. That was a good series.