Monday, January 2, 2017
Bonne année, art nouveau!
Some of my happiest half-hours have been spent in secondhand bookshops. It’s not just the possibility of picking up a bargain (though that appeals), nor the prospect of being among the most covetable stock in trade,* but above all the serendipity – you never know just what you are going to pick up, and the accidents of discovery in secondhand shops are so much more frequent and more surprising than in the usual shop selling new books, where you come across – surprise, surprise – what’s new, newly published, recently reviewed. A good secondhand bookshop can help you find books you didn’t know existed, didn’t know you wanted. Alan Hancox of Cheltenham, Thornton’s of Oxford, the old warehouse-like shop in Greenwich near the market: all were part of my education as well as perpetual sources of pleasure. And they are all gone now, and the world is diminished by their loss.
Secondhand bookselling is, of course, thriving online, and it’s a marvellous resource. But you search for things online, you tend not to find them accidentally. A small mercy (though they had their role in the demise of the other shops) are charity bookshops. If I’m in Cirencester, I always make for the Oxfam shop. It’s small, but I’ve made some good purchases there and these make me go back; I even sometimes donate books to them. I also like the architecture of this shop’s frontage. It’s wood, early-20th century, and in the Art Nouveau style.
To my mind the best features of this shop front are the lovely pane of curved glass on the left-hand end of the window, sweeping towards the door, and the slender glazing bars at the tops of the main panes. These glazing bars do curvaceous things in the very upper portion of the window where, in a Victorian shop window, there would be a horizontal band of frosted glass with lights concealed behind it. In fact, the irregularly shaped panes in the top part of this window probably were glazed differently – look at the two left-hand ones, which seem to have a milky-looking kind of glass in them. Perhaps the lighting in the window was arranged with bulbs just behind the pairs of half-roundels. However it worked, it’s splendid that the window survives, and that the shop it fronts is being put to such good use. Happy New Year!
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* Somebody (Melvyn Bragg?) compared the situation of secondhand booksellers to that of the vintners in Omar Khayam: Why would they want to sell their books at all? What more desirable things would they buy with the money they made?