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George Orwell’s second-hand bookshop memories


george-orwell1My colleague, Brad, who works in our customer support department, pointed me towards this article written by the author George Orwell. We were chatting in the AbeBooks cafeteria about the ‘unique’ nature of used and rare booksellers.

At one time, Orwell worked in a second-hand bookshop in North London and his experience was not a happy one. His distaste for particular types of customers is not hidden in this article entitled ‘Bookshop Memories’ published in 1936. He also hated the reps who sold Christmas cards to the shop in June.

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 calf-bound folios — the thing that chiefly struck me was the rarity of really 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 snobs were much commoner than lovers of literature, but oriental students 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 nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who ‘wants a book for an 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 pest by whom every second-hand bookshop is haunted. One is the decayed person smelling of old breadcrusts 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.

Read the whole article.

The decayed person smelling of old breadcrusts! I can see/smell them now.

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Richard Davies

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