When I worked in a second-hand bookshop—so easily pictured, if you don’t work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among 1)calf-bound 2)folios—the thing that chiefly struck me was the rarity of really 3)bookish people. Our shop had an exceptionally interesting stock, yet I doubt whether ten per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one. First edition 4)snobs were much commoner than lovers of literature, but oriental students 5)haggling over cheap textbooks were commoner still, and vague-minded women looking for birthday presents for their nephews were commonest of all.
Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a 6)nuisance anywhere, but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who “wants a book for an 7)invalid” (a very common demand, that), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the title or the author’s name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover. But apart from these there are two well-known types of 8)pest by whom every second-hand bookshop is9)haunted: One is the 10)decayed person smelling of old bread 11)crusts who comes every day, sometimes several times a day, and tries to sell you worthless books. The other is the person who orders large quantities of books for which he has not the smallest intention of paying. In our shop we sold nothing on credit, but we would put books aside, or order them if necessary, for people who arranged to fetch them away later. Scarcely half the people who ordered books from us ever came back. It used to puzzle me at first. What made them do it? They would come in and demand some rare and expensive book, would make us promise over and over again to keep it for them, and then would vanish never to return. But many of them, of course, were unmistakable 12)paranoiacs. They used to talk in a 13)grandiose manner about themselves and tell the most 14)ingenious stories to explain how they had happened to come out of doors without any money—stories which, in many cases, I am sure they themselves believed. In a town like London there are always plenty of not-quite-15)certifiable 16)lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to 17)gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money. In the end, one gets to know these people almost at a glance. For all their big talk there is something 18)moth-eaten and aimless about them. Very often, when we were dealing with an obvious paranoiac, we would put aside the books he asked for and then put them back on the shelves the moment he had gone. None of them, I noticed, ever attempted to take books away without paying for them—merely to order them was enough. It gave them, I suppose, the illusion that they were spending real money.
Like most second-hand bookshops we had various 19)sidelines. We sold second-hand typewriters, for instance, and also stamps—used stamps, I mean. But our principal sideline was a 20)lending library—the usual “two penny no-21)deposit” library of five or six hundred volumes, all fiction.
Our shop stood exactly on the frontier between 22)Hampstead and 23)Camden Town, and we were 24)frequented by all types, from 25)baronets to bus-conductors. Probably our library subscribers were a fair 26)cross-section of London’s reading public. It is therefore worth noting that of all the authors in our library the one who “went out” the best was—Hemingway? 27)Walpole? No, 28)Ethel M. Dell, with 29)Warwick Deeping a good second and 30)Jeffrey Farnol, I should say, third. Dell’s novels, of course, are read solely by women, but by women of all kinds and ages and not, as one might expect, merely by wistful 31)spinsters and the fat wives of 32)tobacconists. It is not true that men don’t read novels, but it is true that there are whole 33)branches of fiction that they avoid. Men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories. But their consumption of detective stories is terrific. One of our subscribers, to my knowledge, read four or five detective stories every week for over a year, besides others which he got from another 34)library. What chiefly surprised me was that he never read the same book twice. He took no notice of titles or author’s names, but he could tell by merely glancing into a book whether he had “had it already.”
In a lending library you see people’s real tastes, not their pretended ones, and one thing that strikes you is how completely the “classical” English novelists have dropped out of favor. It is simply useless to put 35)Thackeray, Jane Austen, etc. into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out. At the mere sight of a nineteenth-century novel people say, “Oh, but that’s old!” and 36)shy away immediately. And another—the publishers get into a 37)stew about this every two or three years—is the unpopularity of short stories. The kind of person who asks the librarian to choose a book for him nearly always starts by saying “I don’t want short stories,” or “I do not desire little stories,” as a German customer of ours used to put it. If you ask them why, they sometimes explain that it is too much 38)fag to get used to a new set of characters with every story; they like to “get into” a novel which demands no further thought after the first chapter. I believe, though, that the writers are more to blame here than the readers. The short stories which are stories are popular enough, 39)vide 40)D. H. Lawrence, whose short stories are as popular as his novels.
There was a time when I really did love books—loved the sight and smell and feel of them, I mean, at least if they were fifty or more years old. Nothing pleased me quite so much as to buy a pile of them for a 41)shilling at a country auction. There is a peculiar flavor about the 42)battered unexpected books you pick up in that kind of collection: 43)minor eighteenth-century poets, out-of-date 44)gazetteers, 45)odd 46)volumes of forgotten novels, 47)bound numbers of ladies’ magazines of the sixties…