A good second-hand shop is where the minds of people long dead are made to live again

It is both a testament of decay, of oblivion, and also a kind of limbo.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Some people have drug habits; some a gambling addiction; some, illicit sex. What I do, though, when I want to distract myself by spending money I can ill afford to spend, is go to second-hand bookshops, and buy something old. Glamorously old.

I have a 17th-century edition of St Augustine, in French, bought in Toulouse for fr.100, or about a tenner. (Oh, the second-hand bookshops of Toulouse! Hard-by the cathedral, the weight of its million bricks pressing down on the city like the brutal hand of history...) I have my 1720 edition of Thomas Creech’s translation of Horace’s Odes, Satyrs and Epistles (“On the Luxury of the Age”: “Our Squares still rise, our Fields decrease/And now the Ploughs must rust in Ease”), bought from Fosters’ on Chiswick High Road (£35); and a late-19th-century edition of Tennyson, its stiff boards encased in leather and stamped, in gold, with the livery of Christ Church, Oxford, smelling like the inside of a Rolls-Royce (£30, or thereabouts).

It was awarded as a prize to some scholar, but I cannot remember who now, as I gave it to K— for her birthday last year, as it was the only thing I had of value to give her. In Paris, I now have to deliberately avoid the bouquinistes whose stalls line the Seine, for I will end up doubling the weight of my luggage with multi-volume editions of Verlaine, or du Bellay’s Les Regrets, which are only going to make me sadder than I already am.

My favoured bookshop – actually bookshops, though how two of them managed to exist in such close proximity – are in Bell Street, off Lisson Grove in London. Supremely shambolic, with teetering piles everywhere, and in the basement a piano, gap-toothed and chaotically tuned, but just about good enough to try out a piece from the stacks of music sheets surrounding it.

A good second-hand shop is the deep memory of an area. A location served by one is blessed. In it lie the fragments of a civilisation, shored up against its ruins. It is both a testament of decay, of oblivion, and also a kind of limbo; not true death, but a place where the minds of people long dead can be made to live again in someone else’s. They draw the lonely, the bored, the idle, the mentally unstable; oh boy, do they draw the mentally unstable. I feel myself going a little batty when I enter one.

I mean really, what am I going to do with a copy of Volume I of Don Quixote, date and translator unknown, as many early pages are missing? Or indeed my 1681 Soliloques, Manuel, et Meditations of Augustine? “Delivrez-moy, ô mon Dieu, du neant du peché, comme vous m’avez tiré du neant de l’estre”: “deliver me, oh my Lord, from the void of sin, as you drew me from the void of being.”

So there I am, walking up Lisson Grove, my mind more troubled than it has ever been since the end of my marriage, for disaster I cannot write about has struck, and I think: at least I live within walking distance of these shops. My income has been reduced by 60 per cent, but I have a little cash left in my account. Saving right now is futile if not impossible: I’ll buy myself a beautiful old book.

The astute reader will have worked out the punchline by now. The shops have gone. In London, everything is going. Venerable businesses are being forced from their premises; people are being forced from their homes. When the price of the tiniest, seediest London property reaches such absurdly high figures then it is a marvel more people aren’t simply being murdered, to save on the legal fees of eviction. People are talking of the Sixth Great Extinction, by which humans are exterminating countless species apparently just for the sheer giddy hell of it, or because they can; this is another kind of extinction, caused by money, doing it because it can, and because, in many people’s hands, it can do nothing else.

Anyway, there I am, already at a low ebb, and feeling emotionally labile. And these two modest sanctuaries have gone. Well, who needs them – apart from me, the dozen or so other lunatics who browsed in them, and the people who ran them? It’s not as if they were providing a useful service, such as a betting shop, or an estate agency, or a branch of Starbucks.

I am getting tired of this world. The list of good things in it is getting shorter and shorter. And I write about one of its most affluent corners. Imagine how much worse it is everywhere else, and how much worse it’s going to get. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

Free trial CSS