Rose­mary Gor­ing

The Herald - Arts - - Books -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.