Secondhand Books, 20 Lower Marsh, London, SE1 7RJ
Yup, that’s what it’s called. It’s an unconventional name, but it does the job and for that I’ll give it credit. Besides, it’s an unconventional shop. It seems to fit in on Lower Marsh, where one can find an equally unconventional mix of establishments, including two bars, several Chinese take-aways, a record store that only sells old man music, a 50s American-style diner, a greengrocers, a model train shop, a strange little place that seems to sell a range of toys and accessories for dogs, a card and gift shop, a sex shop, a second-hand clothing store and a sprinkling of little cafes. Ah, Lower Marsh, one of the most random and hodge-podge streets in London…and one of my favourites. For the first year I lived in London I was around the corner from it so every morning I walked passed this strange assortment of places without paying too much attention. So, this week, when trying to decide which bookshop to visit, I thought I really ought to finally get around to checking out the shop I had walked past almost every day for a year and never entered.
The first thing to say about Secondhand Books is that the selection is – how shall we put this kindly… – eclectic. The genres represented are fiction, poetry, drama, art, music and history. Of course I may have missed some, as there is little (read: ‘no’) indication of what exactly you’re looking at, but I think that’s about the gist. Yes, the selection is limited. If you went looking under ‘D’ for ‘Dickens’ you’d be surprised to discover that of the sixteen novels the man wrote, Dombey and Son is the only one to be found. So, perhaps not the place to go with a specific thing in mind, but still worth the visit. I find that when you’re presented with fewer novels, instead of being overwhelmed by the sheer number and looking single-mindedly for the thing you want, your mind is opened up to actually look. Unafraid of being bogged down by a huge number of titles, you can actually see what’s there. Somehow, I ended up with two books.
The first was an old edition of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with illustrations by Nicolas Bentley. Lovely pictures, but I just can’t get over the spelling of Nicholas without the ‘h’… but we shan’t hold that against him. Of course, being as geeky and keen as I am, I actually already have the Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot on my bookshelf, but seeing the illustrated version of the poems on that unfamiliar shelf made me want to buy it anyway (it was £2, so who cares anyway?) in the same way that I’d cling to a vague acquaintance at a party where I don’t know anyone else and the elderly host is breathing down your back…I’ll return to the shopkeeper shortly. The second book was The Island of the Day Before (£2.50) by Umberto Eco. I had never heard of this books before and I don’t think it’s one of Eco’s more famous ones. But then, how would I know, as I’ve never read anything the man’s written? Oh how we surprise ourselves. Incidentally, I read the first paragraph and was enthralled to the point of forgetting the awkwardness of being the onlyone in the shop.
The shop itself is, frankly, strange. But just as when choosing our books, our music, our food, our partners and our friends we all pick the strangest variety available (we do all do this, right?), the same should be true of bookshops. The owner is an older man who sits at his desk which is, awkwardly, in the middle of the already-tiny space. He seems not to notice that you’re standing right in front of him, examining his strange collection. Incidentally, he seems to be a bit of a traditionalist. Well, maybe he’s behind the times, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he’s perfectly capable of keeping up with progress but has made the conscious decision not to. Yes that’s right. Either way, you won’t be able to pay with a card; the lovely gentlemen held my books behind the desk for me while I went in search of a cash machine.
But when I first walked in, he was alone and I greeted him politely but quietly, establishing that I’m just a book-lover browsing, thank you. While my back was turned away from the door, I thought I heard at least two people walk in, finishing conversations hastily before stepping through the door frame. But when I craned my neck nosily, I realised that no one had come in, but that the open door allowed this gentleman to sit at his desk all day, clandestinely listening to all the conversations rushing by him on the street outside. After an initial moment of shame at the thought of the many mindless conversations this man might have overheard spilling out of my own mouth as I passed his shop of an early morning, I arrived at a more appealing thought. This man, I imagined, is really a writer, maybe even a philosopher, who set up the shop as a cover, a way for him to secretly listen in on conversations, writing down the particularly humorous, insightful or representative comments made by the human race and putting them all in his novel which will surely be very popular, make lots of money, and not be sold in the shop.