I have a pocketful of change. Around me, there’s the sound of clothes hangers on rails. Beyond a bin of old toys there’s a clink of crockery. The flooring’s worn, the smell is musty. I can hardly restrain my fingers. What am I looking for?
I don’t know. That’s just the point.
I’m in one of my favourite places: a charity shop, in the book section. The atmosphere’s hushed. It’s that of a museum, or, perhaps, a library.
But, wait. If I love books so much, why aren’t I in a library, or, indeed, a bookshop?
In a library or bookshop, the librarians and owners have selected. Here in this charity shop – in any charity shop – pretty much whatever books are given to the staff behind the counter get put out on the shelves.
A History of Squash, Understanding Ghosts and Army Uniforms since 1945 are here stashed between The Law of South Africa, 2001 and a cookbook showing a pair of parsley-sprinkled pancakes. It’s all so wonderfully arbitrary.
At home I have schedules that account for every portion of every working day for the next month. I have a wall calendar that accounts for my whole year. Those printed black lines squeeze me. I have to attend this meeting. I have to make that phone call. I have to get a particular book for work purposes.
Wanting something can be frustrating – you try to find it, there are obstacles, nothing else will do, maybe you have to order it, there’s a wait, the wrong book’s delivered. In a charity shop’s book section, I want only to be surprised. It’s like playing a kind of fusty version of The Dice Man.
Stand in front of the shelves, let my finger drift along the spines, see where it lands – The Practical Fossil Finder, The ABC of Relativity – a future expertise in almost any field could start here. And I get sudden, odd moments of intimacy. Most if not all the books are, of course, used.
Despite its inscription in a child’s hand that reads like a plea – ‘This book balongs [sic] to mummy’ – Total Fitness stayed so unread that there are cobwebs on the back. By contrast, a critical study guide to
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