Salman Rushdie is not a man to inspire pity. Awe, admiration, and a frisson of fear, perhaps. But pity, no. Even when the Ayatollah’s fatwah was pronounced against him and he was forced into hiding, you couldn’t help but feel this was a writer’s boon: his life may have been put on hold, but what novelist did not secretly envy him the enforced solitude, the cast-iron excuse to avoid parties and Christmas lunches, the chance to spend all day writing rather than standing in line at the post office or attending parents’ nights? All at the government’s expense, too.
But last Sunday, for the first time, I felt a pang on his behalf. The occasion was a trip to a splendid institution, once dubbed the Bodleian of second-hand book shops. Barter Books in Alnwick is a former railway station converted into a glorious cavern of books. In the old waiting room a log fire crackles and armchairs invite company; in the barn-like main hall, shelves radiate out in a crescent from the heart of the room like the spokes of a wheel. In one room a model railway chuffs along the top of the bookcases. There’s another fire in the reception area, where tickets and timetables were once dispensed, and throughout the premises there are chairs and benches to sit on while you browse the astonishingly diverse stock.
In a bid to reclaim some floor space at home, I had packed a consignment of surplus books. Barter Books sometimes pays cash, but more often simply gives you a barter price, to be set against anything you buy from the shop. They do a roaring trade, so much so that they post strict instructions on how many – or few – books you are allowed to deposit with them. I’d been told that two bags per week were all they’d take; I hadn’t realised that the voluminous Ikea holdalls I’d filled are verboten, as are packs Sherpa Tenzing might have been familiar with. A quick reshuffle into smaller holdalls in the boot of the car was required for my haul to pass customs. Twenty minutes after handing them over, I returned for the verdict: I had scored £85 in barter value, but was told, cheerfully, that “we can’t help you with the Salman Rushdie.”
The book in question was a first edition of The Moor’s Last Sigh, of which I have two. While they had unquestioningly accepted obscure Scottish history, minor modern fiction, trashy crime books and dry political biography, The Moor was too much for them. What on earth could be wrong with Rushdie, winner of the Booker, the Booker of Bookers and a strong contender for this year’s 40th anniversary Booker of Bookers accolade?
The answer lies in the list the shop provides, titled “Some Notes on Incoming Books”. A masterly snapshot of the secondhand book trade, it should not be left within reach of sensitive novelists or poets. Sought-After Subjects include beekeeping, canals, costume and motor bikes. Under Popular Authors/Series they cite Patrick O’Brian, Georgette Heyer, Enid Blyton, Terry Pratchett, JK Rowling, and Ian Rankin. Barter’s sections on Out-of-Date Authors includes Alistair MacLean, James Herriot and John le Carre, writers published in vast quantities who are now as fashionable as nylon sheets. Ditto Jaws, Jane Fonda Keep Fit, Adrian Mole, An Evil Cradling and Margaret Thatcher.
Nowhere, however, was there any mention of modern literary fiction. The likes of Salman Rushdie and his peers are obviously not in demand. Although you can find some excellent contemporary novels in Barter Books, they are overshadowed by a preponderance of light reading: sci-fi, fantasy, historical fiction, the ubiquitous rows of crime novels and thrillers.
Rushdie’s snub is a reminder that the secondhand trade has to be as ruthless as Borders or Waterstone’s. The unworldly air that shops like Barter Books cultivate is deceptive because the commercial brains behind them must be utterly unsentimental. Without a supply of mass-market bestsellers and hobbyists’ passions they would soon collapse. I understand this. Even so, I find it disillusioning to learn that a business I had considered the literary equivalent of the Dog and Cat home does not operate an open-door policy, even for pedigrees.