It is my first visit to Richard Brooks' Second-Hand Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye (for the geographically challenged that’s in Wales). Within five minutes I am lost in a nether world. A lifetime's browsing from Sydney via Singapore to Southampton has not prepared me for this...
Picture a substantial, three-storied house containing only two things - a very small number of people and a very large number of books. Oh, and one other thing - the smell of books. Not the clinical, new paper and not quite dry ink smell of Dillons but a welcoming, comfortable, second-hand smell, a blend of old leather, damp cardboard and mothballs. Books are everywhere. Books conceivable and inconceivable. Books with hard backs, soft backs, no backs. Books bound in leather, in canvas, in cardboard, in paper. Dog-eared books about dogs, about ears, about dogs' ears. Books with titles worn into illegibility. Books in and about languages which may well exist only within the confines of Brooks' Book shop - Abnaki, Bigambel, Canarese, Dogrib, Ewe, Fanagalo, Gogo, Hokkien, Interior Salish, Jivaro, Konkani, Lozi, Makuchi, Nootka, Onondaga, Penobscot, Quimbundo, Rouchi, Sama-Bajaw, Tupi-Guarani, Unami Delaware, Vannes, Wangeroog, Xhosa, Yawelmani-Yokuts and Zegua. Books on everything under, inside and beyond the sun. Books on all the subjects you've ever heard of and even more on those you haven’t - Alnascharism, Balneography, Chondrodystrophy, Dermatoglyphics, Enigmatography, Falangism, Glossography, Hierography, Ichnolithology, Joe-Millerism, Kamagraphy, Lamarkism, Majorism, Nothingology, Obeahism, Parthenology, Tailism, Ufology, Vermeology, Xanthochroism, Yahooism and Zymotechnology.
Books on shelves, in boxes, in tins, in tea-chests, in cartons, on pallets, in display cases (some with glass unbroken). Books neatly stacked, informally piled or carelessly scattered. Books on shelves too high to reach without steps (there are no steps). The Whispering Gallery of books - a long narrow corridor of shelves along which quiet conversations fifty feet away can be plainly heard. Books jammed so tightly into shelves that they come out in threes but go back only in twos. Books so large that they can scarcely be lifted, so small that they can scarcely be read. Books so abstruse one wonders who apart from the author could possibly have either interest in the subject or comprehension of its complexities – ‘Applications of Perturbative Quantum Chromodynamics’ (as distinct from ordinary Quantum Chromodynamics, presumably). New books, old books, antiquarian (i.e. expensive old) books. Books so cheap that the till-ticket would cost more than the book or so costly you'd need a second mortgage to make a down-payment. Books in every condition - glossy books, glittering among acres of down-at-heel companions; disconsolate books, mildewed and neglected; decrepit, senescent, read-to-death books poised to tremble into dust; books with every page uncut, unopened since leaving the binder a century ago. Maybe several centuries. Familiar books - The Bible, Mrs Beeton. Middle-class children's books – ‘Martyn and Sara make a Soufflé’. Books ex some long-forgotten libris, flyleaves inscribed in faded copperplate - “H. W. Hetherington-Jones, Queens, Cambridge 1878”. Prize books - “To Miss Emily Crichton for outstanding work in Greek Composition 1903”. Gift books - “To Dearest Papa from Charles and Cynthia with all our love, Xmas 1936”. Pornographic books – ‘Cindi gives her All’ (on the most clearly-labelled shelf in the place: in big, brazen, scarlet letters: “SEX” ). Solid, deeply learned books by multiply-qualified academics on stupefyingly recondite topics – ‘Incised slabs of Europe’; ‘A Treatise on the Culture of the Cucumber’; ‘The Benedictine Monasteries of North Fife’; ‘Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan’; ‘Ten years in Equatoria and the Return of the Emin Pasha’. And my personal favourite and candidate for Most Obscure Volume – ‘Introduction to the fifth book of Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity’. This novel-length opus is merely the introduction to the fifth volume! To spend an hour here is truly to be made aware of how little one knows or can possibly know.
I asked at the desk for the two books which I particularly hoped to find: Churchill's first published work – ‘The story of the Malakand Field Force’ and an English translation of Zola's ‘La Curée’, and was given general directions to an area where, it was alleged, books of a similar kind may conceivably be found. The staff neither attempted to find them nor commented on whether they were in stock. The former reticence is attributable to lack of interest, the latter simply to the sheer impossibility of knowing. No-one, not even the eponymous Richard Brooks, can be certain whether any specific book is here. Indeed, no-one can do any better than make a wild guess at how many books there are here. Counting the shelves would be a formidable task; there is no feasible way to count the books.
Labelling and indexing varies from informal to non-existent. There is, deep in the cellarage, a room sternly labelled “Sorting Room. No Admittance.” but its gloomy recesses have a Marie Celestial air - people had been here but their present whereabouts would forever remain a mystery. It seems the admonitory notice is addressed to the staff.
Whoever said the best place to hide a book is in a library had never seen Richard Brooks' Second-hand Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye.
Causes Ted Davison Supports
Médécins sans Frontieres [Doctors without Borders]
Various animal charities