Inspiring Older Readers
The Gold Leaf : A perfect second hand bookshop?
When I’ve got the odd hour to fill and I’m not wrapped up with reading anything that demands all my time, I will often take down a volume of the collected essays and journalism of George Orwell and randomly select something to keep me occupied. When I did that the other day the essay that I settled on was his famous bit of fantasy wish fulfilment about the imaginary perfect pub, The Moon Under Water (1943). It’s as close as Orwell gets to a flight of whimsy and in it he lets himself construct the image of his perfect pub – a nostalgic, comfortable place perfectly suited to his requirements and his personality. It’s situated just off the High Street in a side road, it’s popular without being busy and somehow troublemakers and drunks can’t find it. It’s the detail that counts – proper wooden tables, good solid traditional food, the proper glasses. You almost certainly know what I mean even if you’ve never been in such a place because this is the stuff of tradition and mythology; it’s the working man’s magic kingdom.
But it got me wondering whether I could imagine a perfect second-hand bookshop that would be an equivalent haven for someone like me. I’ve been turning this over in my mind ever since and defining the necessary characteristics is harder than I thought it would be and so what I’m putting down here is more a work in progress than a definitive portrait – it’s certainly going to need further refinement at a later date.
Let’s start with the location. Because I’m a city boy at heart my perfect shop – which I’m calling The Gold Leaf – is in a busy urban setting on a High Street with plenty of passing footfall ( think West Port in Edinburgh or London’s Charing Cross Road for example). It’s double fronted with an aesthetic that’s probably 1930’s or earlier. In the past it might have even been the sort of Edwardian clothes shop that would have employed Mr Polly. Of course, the owners give great care and attention to the window display. Outside a couple of discreet but intriguing book shelves are placed to entice people to stop as they pass and, as you approach it, the presence of these shelves also signals that the shop is open, which it always is.
The Gold Leaf is has an owner who really loves books and never sees them as ‘units’ to be sold. S/he is delighted to have customers and doesn’t think of them as an unfortunate nuisance invading their hallowed turf but as fellow book-lovers who should be welcomed. But this owner also knows not to crowd you – they are attentive without being intrusive.
The layout of the shop is based around sturdy dark wood shelves that reach from floor to ceiling and may require you to use library steps to reach the upper levels. There’s a stove or wood-burner in a period fireplace, rugs on the floor and strategically placed armchairs to sink into whenever it’s time to rest. This is a bookshop not a coffee bar.
The shop will have two or three rooms to explore but whether that’s on one level or two, all of the spaces will be kept clean and well decorated, warm in the winter, cool in the summer. And there will be no bluebottles.
The stock will be immaculately selected and presented with, crucially, no unshelved or festering piles of books heaped up to block access to the volumes on the lower levels. The owner will see him/herself as a retail artist or curator of the stock – trawling the shelves for books that has been misplaced by customers, ensuring the book jackets are protected and sifting out stuff that’s probably never going to sell to make way for new volumes to be added. Delighting the frequent customer with new additions to the shelves will be a priority.
There’s a clear preference in this shop for beautiful hardback books – although this doesn’t exclude all paperbacks – and there will be plenty to tempt the collector as well as the reader. This is not the shop to visit for popular paperback best sellers.
The range of stock is, deliberately, limited to the passion and knowledge of the owners. You won’t find militaria, natural history, topography, cookery or transport sections.
The prices of the books in The Gold Leaf are fair and realistic – the owner does have to make a living. The value ascribed to a book here is not based on a fantasy market and is not set by unrealistic bookseller website comparisons. There will be a range of prices and different editions to give the customer a choice of buying a collectible or a reading copy.
Most importantly when you enter the shop and the doorbell rings time stops. You can be there as long as you want, you can browse the shelves, sit and read or just talk books to the owners or the other customers and it need never be a rush. There’s an atmosphere of tranquil calm edged with the excitement of the possibility of finding that special something you’ve been looking for and it can last for as long as you need it.
Turn up to The Gold Leaf at any time of the day or night – you’re always welcome.