JUNE 2013

The Bookbarn

One million books all at £1 each! What booknut wouldn’t thrill at the prospect, yet after only a couple of hours in the place (and no, you’re not going to get out in less than that if you’re a proper bibliomane coz you just can’t help attempting to check out every shelf) you begin to feel the oddness of it all. You begin to feel that your whole life, as a booknut, has been a complete waste of time – that you are, in fact, not far removed from those crackpot hoarders who live in tunnels of domestic detritus and can’t even eat, sleep or crap without a monumental struggle against accumulated rubbish. At this point the Bookbarn, viewed initially with the excited anticipation of a horny teenage who learns that a nudist colony is opening at the bottom of the garden now takes on the aspect of the main gate at Auschwitz to a visiting Jew. 

About half of the books are sorted. Sharp looking young girls, probably PhD students from Bristol Uni) ferry in new books in wheelie baskets.  They look purposeful and knowledgeable – they wouldn’t be stacking Kafka’s Amerika under geography. The categories seem straight forward enough: history, lit, film, art, politics, a few bays of languages, This section is where the simple punter will head for but better yet is “unsorted” – an area just as large as “sorted” - way back in the shed where a relay of fork-lift trucks shuttle in new arrivals. What riches could lie there! It’s hard work but you’d have to be mad not to check it out. Or, then again, you’d have to be mad to be in here in the first place; you’d have to be mad to waste a diminishing resource (ie the rest of your life) on such an arid quest – especially now we’ve got the internet – Amazon and abebooks where you can simply type in a title and get it delivered from USA or Australia without rising from your chair. But the true booknut is mad – the internet isn’t enough – true booknuttery is about browsing – stumbling across some great unknown. And yes, as the sage has remarked, there are known unknowns and even better, unknown unknowns – stuff you’d never stumble across with a search engine. 

What is it about letting your eyes drift along a stack of spines? Maybe some buried memory of your first encounter – like the stacks in the local public library (now a bank of computer screens) where you’d educate yourself mining the contents of the philosophy or psychology section, facilitated by Mr Dewey’s great, infinitely expansible system. No matter how many books get added to a shelf they still have a unique number and be easily located. With Dewey every person in the world could have a unique number. With Dewey every atom in the universe could have a unique number. 

But how does the Bookbarn make money? It wasn’t exactly full when I visited. At a quid per book they probably make more on coffee and cake (yes, geriatric book nuts soon want a breather – and even here, in the snack area, you’re surrounded by books. Just noshing on a sticky bun you can’t help noticing the essays of Emerson or an early Julian Barnes). And here’s another thing – the killer in many second-hand bookshops is acres of Dan Browns and James Pattersons – you’d just turn round and head out, but the Bookbarn seems to have removed such dross into another purgatory which you can avoid.  

So what did I find that justified two or three hours work – work which as a House of Lords lobbyist would have got me a monkey? Well, not that much really. Two oddities (see pics below). The James Notebooks is the first ed hardback, 425pp. It is still in print and a paperback version is on Amazon at £28. The Archive Vol 1 is completely out-of-print. The two volume set appears twice on abebooks – at £170 and £190. Other stuff caught my eye. 8 vols of the latest edition of Groves Encyclopaedia of Music (the full 29 vol set would cost nearly £1000). The B’s would be the one to go for but this heterogeneous selection started at H. It did, however, include the volume containing Schubert and Schumann (but not Shostakovich). I left it. Duhamel’s Pasquier Chronicles in a 1937 translation and a bunch of Steve Bell cartoons (still a good larf – and mainly from the height of the Thatcher tyranny 1983 – 1985) – Kinnock’s windbaggery beautifully skewered. Happy days (if you stayed in work).