IT’S IN THE SMELL, IT’S IN THE STORY

BY KIM RENFREW

Second-hand book shopping isn’t an addiction. It’s more of an impulse. You don’t spend day after day seeking out the next fix, but it’s lodged in your genes and whenever you pass a musty tower of paperbacks, some reflexive muscle launches you at them. You never know what might be in there. Another old Fodor’s Modern Guide, for example, to go with 1957’s Switzerland, with Liechtenstein (Ralph’s Books, Dillwyn Street, Swansea, 1991, though originally owned by one KA Linscott, Oxted, June 1957, and a snip at 50p).

Second-hand book shopping is a refuge from modernity; you won’t find instant gratification nestling among the curling, foxed pages. You do it because you have no clue what’ll turn up in those ramshackle stacks. You do it because it’s a two-fingered salute to Amazon, that dreary experience which is entirely about known quantities, right down to what Nina in Ohio thought about your next buy.

It’s not about getting cheap, hard-to-find or out-of-print books, though it’s all of these things. Nor is it about discovering a book you want but haven’t got – though you might well find one (Marguerite Duras, The Whispers of Love, Spui Boekenmarkt, April 2001, 8fl) – more often, it’s about buying a book you already own and love in every different edition you can find.

There’s something comforting about buying used books; it makes you feel immortal. You must always write your name, and the time and place of purchase on the flyleaf. Not for your own benefit – because you always remember precisely when and where you bought it – but for future readers. William Jones of Tyn yr Heol scratched his name and the date, Oct. 16th 1864, in black fountain pen into The Child’s Guide to Knowledge by A LADY (Dylan’s, Salubrious Passage, Swansea, March 1993, £1) and its pages reveal that this poor Victorian child was tested on the – improbably esoteric – contents. (“Q: Are not vast quantities of sturgeon caught annually in the Caspian Sea? A: Yes; and from a species called the starred sturgeon, the best caviar and the strongest isinglass are obtained.” TICK. Poor William. Do you think he was beaten senseless with a rod if he got one wrong, as he did on page 282, “Q: What is chyroprase?”*).

You get glimpses into other times and other lives with pre-owned books that you never get in new ones. The Fodor’s Modern Guide to Morocco (See am pattern emerging?), picked up for €1 at’t Ouwe Boekje, Graventsraat, Den Burg, Texel, June 2002, is full of clippings, jottings, mementoes. We know its old owner went to Rissani, UN CADRE TYPIQUEMENT MAROCAIN, in Casablanca, and that he or she obsessively snipped bits about the country from magazines. The same owner, I suspect, also visited Austria (€2), drove down the Brenner motorway on 12 April 1969 (60 schilling toll) and, 30-odd years later, left me some empty sugar bags and a very nice Werfen im Salzachtal sticker. You don’t get that in Scheltema.

Second-hand book buying, then, is a serendipitous thing. You don’t decide what you’re going to get, or when you’re going to get it. And there is no place in the world that better encapsulates this form of shopping in all its glorious randomness than Sporadisch Antiquarisch on Sarphatipark. It is, as the name yells you, an on-off thing (the only regular opening hours are Saturday 2-4 and even that’s not guaranteed), piled up with a disorder of reading matter. Outside, there is also a bargain windowsill of the most unpredictable books, at 50c a pop. Perfect. This shop is where I have culled some of my best finds, ever.  I remember one sunny Saturday afternoon in April 2003, riffling through the outside tables and coming across the garish, sensationalist cover of a 1960s gay pulp fiction paperback. And another. Then another and another and another. This was pay dirt, and at €10 per half dozen! I came away with two carrier bags full of the buggers and each is a sociological specimen.

We begin in 1965 with James Barr’s Quatrefoil, a sub-Querellian (complete with matelot and cap’n on the cover) self-hating wank-piece masquerading as a serious study. “An unforgettable – deeply moral – adult novel…” trails the back blurb. “The chest and thghs, heavy against him and hot with an animal vitality that Phillip could feel through their wet clothes” reads the quite random page I opened.

As gay lib is invented, the tone changes. HOMO House of Male Order (1968) by Bert Schrader is a ridiculous tale of a knocking shop in the Midwest. Despite it’s straightforward porn talk (a new direction), it’s really a romance and consciousness has most definitely been raised: “Spud shrugged. ‘What do you call them?’ ‘gay or even homo after you get to know them but queer is not a word that they like.’”

The last books in the collection, from the early ’80s, are dark, sexually complex literature (like John Rechy’s Rushes) a million years from the internalised homophobia of the early works. ‘Nico van Dalen’ is written in red biro inside Quatrefoil. In my imagination, he is an old gay man, no longer with us, whose possessions were sold off – no heirs, you see – and who experienced seismic shifts in attitudes to being gay, both in the outside world and inside himself, then bequeathed it all to me with his library.

A few months later, I was walking past Sporadisch Antiquariat and saw a copy of Paint Along With Nancy in the window. Nancy Kominsky was an ur-Bob Ross, whose how-to-paint programmes I watched every dinnertime at 12.30 p.m. on HTV Wales in teh late 1970s. Of course, I went back to the shop every day until I found it open and when it was, I snatched up Nancy. The owner asked if I wanted it for kitsch value; I put him right and told him, no, there was nothing ironic here: this book unleashed real emotion. I often wonder what funny journey brought this book to Amsterdam.

I did think of taking some of my finds back to the Antiquarisch, holding each one up and asking the owner: “Remember this? Or this or this?” and getting the history of all my lovely books.

But I couldn’t do it.

I might find out the truth, you see; and that, dear reader, would spoil the story.

*“A: A beautiful stone of a delicate apple-green colour, much prized by jewellers, brought from Silesia, in Germany.”

Published in Amsterdam Weekly, 16-22 February 2006. 

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