Elegy for the second-hand bookshop

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 10.14.48There is little that is truly charitable about the ‘charity’ shops that are driving out venerable old businesses on Britain’s high streets. The ‘charity’ shops, which, it is often not appreciated, benefit from large subventions from the British state, have been highly destructive both of enterprise and of culture.

Much of the income the ‘charity’ shops generate is funnelled circuitously but pretty consistently into the Swiss bank accounts of dictators and their henchmen around the world. Any cash left over tends to go on business-class air travel and plush hotel accommodation for priggish, overwhelmingly white, upper-middle-class Western European, North American and Australasian ‘aid workers’ and to anyone who has managed to clamber onto the UN gravy train. These aid-and-development racketeers, as they have been called, are really seeking paid-for outdoor relief; in an earlier age they might have been disporting themselves on the Northwest Frontier. They relish the chance to drive Toyota Land Cruisers at high speed through picturesquely poor countries. How convenient that all their fondest whims can be indulged courtesy of the humble bookbuyer! These young princes of poverty profess to care for the underprivileged and the wretched of the earth, but they make sure they lavishly reward themselves in salaries and perks.

The ‘charity’ shops receive their books free of charge, so there is a grotesquely unfair playing field. The shops, staffed by unpaid Mrs Jellyby amateurs (who have no idea of a book’s true monetary value and often overcharge), have done a great deal to kill off the country’s second-hand bookshops, a once-magnificent resource. The second-hand book dealers were never a very attractive group of people, in fact many were somewhat brusque and not over-fastidious in matters of personal hygiene, but they were professionals. Now amateurism has supervened. The internet has played the major part in the destruction of the second-hand bookshop, to be sure, but the internet has at least given something with one hand as it takes away with the other. The decay of the second-hand bookshop is one of the saddest things about modern Britain. Dalrymple writes:

How many hours, among the happiest of my life, have I spent in [these] dusty, damp or dismal purlieus? Second-hand bookshops are closing daily, driven out of business by a general decline in reading, the internet, and the charity shop. Booksellers tell me that 90% of their overheads arise from their shops, and 90% of their sales from the internet. Second-hand bookshops make less and less economic sense.

Browsing among the shelves

is rewarding in a way that the internet can never be. Serendipity is the greatest pleasure of browsing — the joy of finding something that one did not know existed.

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