In the past month, I’ve bought around 15 to 20 books. They’ve cost… what would you say? £150? £180? Actually, it’s somewhere in the region of £12. In the process, I’ve luxuriated in a world without bestselling ghosted autobiographies; shops with no smash-hit stocking-fillers; sanctuaries from the output of celebrity chefs. No Christmas catalogues, no ‘As Seen on TV’ signs. Where am I? The book sections of my four local charity shops.
Instantly, you have an image of dusty rows of Danielle Steel, Frederick Forsyth and discarded diet books. And, yes, there are hundreds of them, along with metres of Catherine Cookson and dozens of out-of-date travel guides. But these are not the books that have reignited my enthusiasm – it’s the ones lurking among them.
What I find so boring about buying books in the high street is the lack of surprises and new ideas. Either you know already what you want to buy, or you browse through the same three-for-two books you’ve seen in every other shop. Buying books in charity shops has changed all that. My choices are steered randomly, by whatever happens to be lurking among the historical romance and gardening books.
In the past few weeks, I’ve bought books by Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield and Rosamund Lehmann; Peter Hopkirk’s fascinating The Great Game; Rudyard Kipling’s surprisingly enjoyable Kim; The Canterbury Tales; a guide to identifying nuts and berries, and ten Willard Price adventure books (all ten for the grand price of £1).
In addition, I nearly bought dozens of classics (you can guarantee a Dickens, a Hardy and a George Eliot in every charity shop) and A-level set texts (the EM Forsters, the Woolfs, the poetry books) cleared out by parents whose children have just left home. Such bargains they were and in such lovely editions: I was crestfallen each time I realised I already had them.
The point about all the books I’ve bought or nearly bought is that I wouldn’t have done so in the high street. Either the shops don’t stock them, or they don’t look quite so alluring as this year’s shortlist special, flaunting its £5-off sticker. But in the charity shop, so classic, so classy amid the gaudy historical romances, they look somehow more attractive. ‘Oh, I’ve always meant to read that,’ you think, and how can you resist when it costs just 79p?
Admittedly my diet of Kipling, Lehmann and 19th-century history means I can’t take part in dinner-party discussions about this year’s Costa Prize hopefuls or Richard and Judy choices, but somehow I feel happier for it.
And of course, I’m saving a few trees as well…
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