Anti-Shopping: Charity Bookshops, Reading, and Serendipity
I doubt I am the only print-addled American hopelessly addicted to British charity bookshops. Of course we have our own thrift shops in the States. Somewhere in Wisconsin or Ohio I once found a paperback copy of Iain Sinclair’s 1994 novel Radon Daughters with the words ‘Jail Collection’ stamped in red ink on the bottom across the pages. (Conclusion? Even the jail had discarded it…but this book had found its reader after a long and roundabout voyage overseas.) But outside of a few places like Community Thrift in San Francisco, it’s fair to say that there’s little over here to compare to the volume and variety of titles that exists in the charity shops you find almost everywhere in the UK.
Call it anti-shopping. One mode of city meandering between charity shops involves reading serendipity. You want to stumble into precisely the title you’ve been looking for. (Was it The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories by the Uruguayan horror miniaturist Horacio Quiroga? Unlikely, until you got enthralled by the title at a charity shop just north of Finsbury Park Station.) It might be interesting to limit your reading to charity shop titles for a year, depending on whatever happens to be on hand. It’s inevitable that you begin to wonder about the people who donated these books. Were they weary of these titles? Did they grow to hate the book? Were they relocating, decluttering? Or did they die? You are also curious about the books that never seem to appear in these places, versus the titles that always remain in plentiful supply, having been printed and purchased widely but not loved…
If my memories of charity shops mostly center on London, that’s only because London is the place that I happen to spend most of my time in the UK. In anticipation of each visit, I usually pack my suitcase with old clothes, so that I can wear out the clothes on my travels, throw them away, and return to the States with books in their places.
My father-in-law used to play cricket in Highgate and he likes to return to watch on Saturday afternoons in the summer. When I get bored or when clouds gather, I steal away into the Oxfam in Crouch End. This place has never let me down, and I’m almost always slightly less glum when I leave than when I enter the shop, which is odd and perhaps slightly inappropriate considering that the actual purpose of this charity involves serving the world’s hungry and desperately poor. Never mind, I’m trivially buoyant because I’ve found London from the Bus Top, by Lucy Masterman (Dennis Dobson LTD, MCMLI). A small-format hardback with the subtitle ‘A guide for the impecunious traveller.’ The book is arranged by bus route, starting with the No. 11, which promises a journey through Roman, Medieval, Stuart, and Victorian London. ‘Since we all have to get about London, we may as well enjoy the process,’ Ms. Masterman reasons with charm. When she pauses to thank the bus conductors who might have found her ‘and my note-book a little peculiar,’ I wish to invent time travel in order to meet her. I’d like to think that during the old days of the Routemaster maybe we once sat on the same seat on the No. 19, but I don’t know if our lives could have overlapped at all. Here’s to Oxfam, notebooks, buses, and peculiar ladies.
Animal Aid and Advice + Charity Bookshop at the old A. Wilsher & Son Store, Islington N5
There are two charity shops that almost face one another across Blackstock Road just south of the old Police station south of Finsbury Park Station, and I always get their names confused. They’re both good but the one on the west side of the road is wonderfully tiny and cramped and it gives the visitor the sensation that it might collapse into a cloud of dust and book mold at any moment. For some reason I always seem to buy miniature books at this place, generally those Penguin 60s that contain a few short stories or one long essay by a classic writer. Most recently it was the stories of Jean Rhys that drew me in. ‘They Call it Jazz’: ‘To walk in London on a Sunday with nowhere to go – that takes the heart out of you.’ And then, later, you walk around Clissold Park – the hub of the universe – and London does just what Rhys says it does to you. On your headphones, Exene Cervenka is singing something Rhys-flavored from X’s ‘Under the Big Black Sun’: ‘Good morning, midnight!’
I like the logo for Mind, with its tangled ball of string. I look for it wherever I go. One time I found a paperback of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and I was so pleased to see it that I broke my personal rule as an American in London, which is to try to remain silent for as long as possible in any conversation. The volunteer asked me to wait for a minute while he rummaged around in the back room, returning with a copy of the anthology that Haldeman edited, Study War No More: A Selection of Alternatives (Futura Publications Limited, 1979). Just a little act of kindness done for no particular reason and without any explanation, the kind of moment that you remember for years. There’s no particular reason to be nice to people like that, but sometimes you have to hand it to humanity. In Haldeman’s ‘To Howard Hughes: A Modest Proposal,’ an ultrarich tycoon tries to force the world’s leaders into to give up their nuclear weapons by planting his own private arsenal of radioactive warheads in cities across the world. Haldeman writes: ‘Ramo doesn’t like people to call it “Project Blackmail,” and so they just call it “the project” when he’s around.’
Once you see the strange sunsets and the eagle nests of Mull it’s tough to justify leaving. But when we did, we couldn’t pay our B&B bill because the introduction of chip and PIN security rendered our American bank cards obsolete at the local cash machines. In desperation I drove to the ferry terminal – where the pilgrims set off for the holy island of Iona at one of the “thin places” of the world where heaven and earth join together – to see if I could bargain with anyone for cash. My plan was silly and besides at that early hour of the morning on the weekend no one seemed to around. It started raining, so I stumbled into the corrugated iron shed that served as a self-service charity bookshop for the Lifeboat service. I was alone at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in a foreign country where I had embarrassed myself thoroughly. I had to go back to the B&B and explain that I couldn’t pay, and I wasn’t looking forward to it, at all. The rain drummed on the rooftop of the empty shed and the books inside made everything feel okay again. The solution was simple: we’d find a way to have a relative in London wire the money to the B&B. There were some hitchhikers headed back from Iona to the mainland waiting in the rain, and I brought them back with me to the B&B, to everyone’s confusion. I didn’t think I should deny the B&B even a single pound, so I didn’t touch any of the books I wanted at the Lifeboat shed. Maybe one day I’ll go back.
J.M. Tyree is the Nonfiction Editor of New England Review and currently teaches as Distinguished Visiting Professor at VCUarts. His most recent book is Vanishing Streets: Journeys in London (Stanford University Press, 2016).
The image featured at the beginning of this post is of the Barnardo’s charity bookshop in Southside, Edinburgh and is by bryonv2.