One of my favourite haunts in Brighton is the cosy basement of a secondhand bookshop on a street whose name I’ve conveniently forgotten. It specialises in antique and rare books, which I try not to look at for fear of being tempted into buying something I cannot afford or cart back home. But how do you avoid those inviting faded spines emblazoned in gold, antiquity beckoning from every page?
Tables set out on the pavement outside the shop hold cartons of secondhand books. They are less impressive than the ones inside the shop, but careful perusing can turn up some good titles. Or you could just read the blurbs on the paperbacks- the lines on the cover of a Knut Hamsen book said something to the effect that it was such a heartbreaking story your tears would flow down your cheeks to your chin- not that I was ever aware of tears doing anything other than that.
Enter the shop, read the early 20th century advertisements tacked on to a wall (the most amusing one being about a men’s toilette- a shave, a haircut, the works), then descend down a spiral staircase into the most wonderful man-made structure in Brighton, complete with a mysterious alcove lined with bookshelves. To be fair, this is the only old bookshop I’ve visited here, and there might be better ones around, but I like being carried away by things.
If you love me to bits, try not to be talked into visiting a bookshop with me, because you’ll despise me forever after. I’ll forget your existence, except for the occasional comment when I’m so excited by a book that I can’t hold myself back, and spend blissful hours in a haze of dust and the odour of yellowed pages and glue, opening every book on the shelf to read the dedication on the fly-leaf, while you age away and are reduced to a heap of skeletal dust.
Little else equals the soft serenity of the moment when you lift the cover of an old book, peeping over its corner in eager anticipation to interpret the intricate loops in faded ink. I enjoy reading dedications and trying to build lives out of the few words in front of me. I am at my most vulnerable when surrounded by books, and the simplest dedication can move me to soppiness. Yesterday, I came across a copy of Tom Brown’s Schooldays which carried a single line explaining it was to a boy from his father, dated sometime in the early 1900s. Of course my imagination ran riot- I saw a portly man with a pince-nez, a watch-and-chain and a distant but concerned paternal eye, giving his son the book as he saw him off to boarding school, hoping to inculcate the morals that twelve-year-olds rushing headlong into adolescence find so hard to live by.
There were books from aunts to nephews and nieces, most from the early 1900s again- given perhaps by the kindly but officious dowagers moulding the children heir to their wealth according to their own rigorous standards, in eternal dread of having it drunk or gambled away. Some books had been given as prizes- “for good conduct and perseverance”, read the barely legible handwriting in one. You could almost imagine the givers and the recipients peeping over your shoulder, watching to make sure this stranger from across the oceans was taking good care of what was once a prized possession. Old books breathe and throb with a life new ones are devoid of, and perhaps acquire only after years of safeguarding. No, I won’t explain it.
I have my eye on an 1888 copy of Sara Crewe/Editha’s Burglar. It was given in 1898 to a ten-year-old boy by an aunt way ahead of her time and ours- surely, by giving her nephew a book of “girls’ stories” instead of RL Stevenson or Mark Twain, she was breaking stereotypes that exist even today? I’d love to own such an old book- but it is fragile, and I might find something I like better that I want to spend my money on.
Bookshops are best visited in the afternoon. Give me a bookshelf in a corner, and you can keep me out of mischief for hours. I’ll clear the cobwebs off them, sort them according to size, arrange them almost obsessively on the shelf, and read snatches all the while to assure myself that there is a parallel universe that we so condescendingly choose to deny the existence of. What can lift you out of the gloom of a day when everything seems to go wrong but a well-loved book with a world that you comprehend to perfection?