Category Archives: second-hand bookshops

The unsung heroes of our culture

A dying trade

Precarious lives of Britain’s few remaining sellers of second-hand books

Dalrymple writes:

I remain firm in my admiration of those who do not work exclusively or even principally for money; and among the latter must surely be English provincial sellers of second-hand books.

Theirs is

a dying trade, and entering their shops – now, alas, fewer and fewer – one cannot help but wonder whether it ever truly lived. As long as I can remember, which is now quite a long time, they have been cold with a kind of irredeemable cold, an absence of warmth upon which no paraffin heater, no pre-war single bar electric heater (of the kind favoured by booksellers), no clement weather, can make the slightest impression.

When you take a book from a shelf of one of these bookshops,

you get a puff of cold air in the face, as well as of dust, as if you had opened a mediæval tomb complete with a curse against grave-robbers. One associates dust with dry heat, but this, at least where English provincial second-hand bookshops is concerned, is a mistake. They contrive to be cold, dusty and damp at the same time.

Dalrymple finds it remarkable that

in so materialistic an age as our own people can be found who not only spend, but want to spend, and cannot conceive of not spending, their working lives in such conditions, and all for little monetary reward.


they are more or less protected by their avocation from the seamier and more violent side of modern society; burglars and armed robbers in even the worst areas for crime do not think to break into second-hand bookshops; and the comings and going of governments do not trouble them. Not for them, either, the shadow-boxing of modern party politics, in which one political mountebank sets himself up as the last bastion against the depredations of another, in truth not very dissimilar, mountebank.


they concern themselves with the eternal verities of light foxing, cocking, small tears to dust jackets, and the like. The worst that can happen to them is a gentle slide into insolvency as rents rise (all such shops are now found in the unlikeliest places because they can survive only where rents are low) and readers decline – both in number and in discrimination. For my money (of which, incidentally, they have taken a lot down the ages) they are the unsung heroes of our culture.

Happier times

Do you wish to register a complaint?

Harold Shipman, Dalrymple points out in a recent speech (from 28:29),

was very highly regarded by his patients.

If at the time when Shipman was most active,

the kind of TripAdvisor performance feedback had existed,

patients would have said:

He’s got a very good bedside manner; he’s always willing to listen.

The book reviewer

Dalrymple visits a Manchester secondhand bookshop and purchases

a slim volume that Dr Shipman had been asked by a medical journal to review.

The title was: Understanding the New Complaints Procedure in the National Health Service.

The hideously male second-hand book trade

Dalrymple’s experience of the second-hand and antiquarian book trade is that

it is almost as exclusively male a preserve as the membership of the Garrick.

He explains that

it is when the man dies, never the woman, that booksellers are called in to clear houses of accumulated books.

As for customers,

they are overwhelmingly male.

Garrick Club

Decay of the second-hand bookshop

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-15-12-34Dalrymple writes that he has been

obsessed by books all my life,

and today he feels

the melancholy that I suppose old artisans must once have felt when their trade became industrialised. All these years I have been on the wrong, or at least losing, side of history.

In England, he points out, second-hand bookshops have been killed by

  • the internet
  • the odious soi-disant charity Oxfam
  • the loss of interest in browsing other than on a computer

What a way to go

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.59.08Burying himself in The Bibliomania, or Book-Madness, Containing Some Account of the History, Symptoms and Cure of this Fatal Disease, by the Rev. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Dalrymple enjoys the description of a man who,

on his deathbed, excitedly sent out for books from the catalogue of a bookseller, his obsession keeping him happy until the very moment of his death.

His library of 50,000 books was sold posthumously for a third of what it cost him,

but if the really important business of life is to die well, then no better death could be imagined.

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Postcards from Southsea

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 08.54.08Once a haven

of petty-bourgeois respectability, it is now seedy, its Victorian and Edwardian terraces divided into flats and bedsits for students, recipients of social security, and transients. I loved it.

There are

scores of little shops, with no chain shops in sight; and you could park for free for two hours.

Opposite the United Reformed Church (1911; converted into seedy flats), Dalrymple (probably without his wife, also a doctor, who takes the view that there may be enough books in the Maison Dalrymple already) visits Adelphi Books. Specialising in pre-war crime novels, it is

presided over by a pre-internet owner who did not spend his time poring over a computer comparing prices.


seemed delightfully unregulated; it was like going back several decades.

Dr and Dr Dalrymple meet up again and go to

an excellent and cheap Japanese restaurant – £17 [$25] for two with a beer included. The manager apologised for the slight delay in the arrival of the food (it was very slight). ‘We’re suddenly very busy,’ he said. ‘I expect it’s the rain. When the weather’s good, people have better things to do than come here.

Dalrymple’s reaction to this remark:

I think I could be happy in Southsea.

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The proprietor at Adelphi does not waste his time poring over a computer comparing prices

Where Conan Doyle was a general practitioner

Where Conan Doyle was a general practitioner

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The Southsea Dalrymple knew as a young man

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Excellent and cheap

Excellent and cheap

Conan Doyle's home and consulting-room

Conan Doyle’s home and consulting-room

A Hoxha votary amid the dust and mould

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 05.48.33A second-hand bookseller Dalrymple knows is

a fervent believer in Enver Hoxha’s Albanian paradise.

The bookseller

thinks all forms of modern communication are instruments of monopoly capitalism, designed to exploit the common man, who consequently has not a clue about the value (or should I say the price?) of a first edition of Liza of Lambeth.


is furious that his black customers, old women mainly, are more interested in concordances to the Bible than in Hoxha’s vituperations against the Titoites.

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Theodore is priceless

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New York: Horace Liveright, 1928

Faithful friend of the Soviet Union

Strolling in Amsterdam, Dalrymple finds that

there are some excellent second-hand bookshops.

At one of them he picks up

an irresistible book entitled Dreiser Looks At Russia. It ends with the unintentionally hilarious words:

Sleep well, Ilitch, father of a new and possibly — how shall we say? — world-altering force. How fortunate, you, its chosen if martyred instrument. How fortunate indeed.

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Theodore Dreiser: ‘a friend of the Soviet Union because he is a friend of Man, a champion of the democratic masses everywhere’

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Our Ilitch: ‘only the humanity of his spirit, enveloping aura-wise, could have evoked in those underprivileged millions the necessary faith in, if not an understanding of, his immense wisdom and human charity’

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Sleep well, Ilitch

Sleep of the righteous: Ilitch in his mausoleum

Charitable and wise

Ilitch the charitable and wise

'Chosen if martyred instrument of the world-altering force. How fortunate are the Russian masses!'

Ilitch the chosen one, the martyr

'Father of a new and possibly — how shall we say? — world-altering force'

Radiant Ilitch: ‘father of a new and possibly — how shall we say? — world-altering force’

‘Lenin, his Russia, the humanithy and justice which at last, and fully, he introduced into its government and statecraft, will succeed. The social illustration which he provided and which his associates and followers have since carried to its present great power and beauty will never be lost on future generations'

Power and beauty: ‘his Russia, the humanity and justice which at last, and fully, he introduced into its government and statecraft, will succeed. The social illustration which he provided and which his associates and followers have since carried to its present great power and beauty will never be lost on future generations’

The Russian masses, Dreiser wrote, ‘are determined never again to be enslaved. I do not doubt the outcome. Lenin, his Soviet empire, will triumph’

Ilitch triumphant: ‘the Russian masses are determined never again to be enslaved. I do not doubt the outcome. His Soviet empire will triumph’

When he was in Russia in 1927-28 in Russia Dreiser saw 'peasants and mechanics, women and men, kneeling here and there in worship, if not prayer, before Ilitch's candle-lighted bust, or standing uncovered with bowed heads before it, feeling him to be, as I assumed (and truly enough in my judgment), their saviour'

Ilitch the saviour: ‘I saw peasants and mechanics, women and men, kneeling here and there in worship, if not prayer, before his candle-lighted bust, or standing uncovered with bowed heads before it, feeling him to be, as I assumed (and truly enough in my judgment), their saviour’

Why bloodletting is coming back into usage

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 21.01.21Mouldering on the shelves of many a secondhand bookshop, writes Dalrymple,

without much hope of ever being bought and even less of being read, are the essayistic reflections of doctors near or just after retirement.

These efforts

were a literary genre of the ’20s and ’30s, and they are generally a summary of what life taught their authors.

Of Christopher Howard, who published his After Consulting Hours in 1930, Dalrymple knows nothing,

except that I deduce from his qualifications* and the fact that his preface was written from Harley Street that he was a practitioner in that great street.

His book

was addressed to his fellow practitioners rather than to the general public, for it was published by William Heinemann Medical Books and contains quite a lot of technical advice.

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 07.48.56Indeed, Howard appears to have practised from 104 Harley Street. He was to go on to publish notably Bedside Manners and Paris Prelude (both 1932) and Physic and Fancy (1937; ‘Medical observations and other observations on gardens, syphilis, etc.‘)

The After Consulting Hours blurb reads:

A medical man’s reflections after consulting hours are over on his patients, their various idiosyncrasies, the latest ideas in medical science, including such different subjects as high blood pressure, endocrine glands, vitamins, ultra violet treatment, hay fever, etc. The book is very pleasantly written and is of interest to both the layman and the doctor.

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‘He reveals, too, how he thinks he might be tempted to consider suicide while in Cheshire, though it would never occur to him in Suffolk . . . This is a pleasant little book revealing an attractive personality.’ (from a review in the BMJ of After Consulting Hours in the year of its publication)

The book’s opening sentence reads:

The taking of blood pressure and the interpretation of the figures of the sphygmomanometer to the patient has become a craze which the profession as a whole would do well to endeavour to counteract.

The problem is that

there is a temptation for the busy doctor to take a blood pressure reading and, from the first definite indication of heightened pressure that he obtains, to think that he is dealing with a case of hyperpiesia and to institute the appropriate treatment of this condition.

But if the patient’s blood pressure is consistently high,

it is most unwise to give him the exact figures


one of the commoner causes of modern phobias is based upon blood-pressure reading.

If the trend continues,

taking an undue interest in the blood-pressure reading may soon become as much a hobby in Europe as in America.


one of the major advantages which have come out of the increased interest which the profession, as a whole, during the last thirty years, has taken in blood pressure, is that bloodletting is once more coming back into usage.

Dr Howard states in a letter to a reader: 'My work lies largely among the sophisticated and the relatively well-to-do.'

Dr Howard states in a letter to a reader of his After Consulting Hours: ‘My work lies largely among the sophisticated and the relatively well-to-do.’

Thanks to hyperpiesia,

the value of bloodletting in pneumonia or in any affection which troubles the right side of the heart, in plethoric conditions generally, is again being remembered,


it fell into disrepute because many years ago it was overdone.

The patient feels so much better after having 600ml of blood removed that he is tempted to demand repeat venesections too soon and too often.

The next ten or twenty years may produce a crop of plethoric individuals

for whom salvation blood will too often be let, bringing the operation back into disrepute.

Meanwhile, subcutaneous oxygen

may be of great value in cases of pneumonia and in some heart lesions.

Stokes-Adams attacks result when

the living liquid of the body has become a viscous substance of the consistency of treacle,

treacliness being caused by the use of arsenic in old men’s venereal diseases. Subcutaneous oxygen is contraindicated in coronary thrombosis, a condition

Bloodletting device of the type probably used by Dr Howard

Bloodletting device of the type probably used by Dr Howard

only comparatively lately noted

and cases of which

are still rare.

The sufferer must on no account make a voluntary movement for many days:

Even the small shock which might be associated with the passage of the needle

to give subcutaneous oxygen might prove fatal. And

it is only by frightening the attendants that an absolute state of immobility can be obtained.

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 06.30.29Dalrymple comments:

What a pleasure it must have been to frighten people out of their wits. A real compensation for uselessness.


evidence-based medicine will ensure that no one will ever again write After Consulting Hours.

*Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (England); Licentiate, Royal College of Physicians (London)
Bloodletting services: 104 Harley Street

Bloodletting services: 104 Harley Street, where Dr Howard practised

Utility of Arnold Schönberg

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The old second-hand booksellers — the real pros now wiped out, of course, by the state-subsidised fake-charity shops — used to regard their customers, Dalrymple points out,

largely with contempt.

You knew you were in an ice-cream butcher’s if the seller was in any degree courteous. If he was curt, supercilious and rude, you knew the place was the real thing.

The owner of one bookshop Dalrymple used to visit

so hated his customers that he would sometimes play Schönberg very loudly to clear the shop of them. It was a very effective technique.