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The Book Sellers.

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Avatar Nexus
Posted 04/06/13 - 11:03 AM:
Subject: The Book Sellers.
The Book Sellers.

It was a long street right bang in the city centre. Meandering toward the red light district as it did it attracted only the business of greasy cafés, humdrum pubs, hostels, small novelty stores and noticeably - to a pedestrian new to the city who may have strayed into the zone - second-hand bookshops. They congregated close like a species apart scared of losing grip, perhaps succumbing to higher rates and rents should the lap dancers leave and be replaced by more respectable trade.

'Herbert Quality Books' was the first establishment met if one were heading in a westerly direction away from the historical, tourist heavy side of town. Glancing into the window the average passer-by immediately felt excluded from even attempting entry due to the foreboding parade of tomes which greeted the eye. It seemed locked up, nobody in accepting business. In fact Herbert could often be found in the back rooms touching up volumes or looking over the catalogues of books in his possession - recently this had all been transferred from the dusty old IBM to a website he'd arranged therefore allowing complete strangers to peruse his lists. The idea of strangers knowing what books he possessed had deterred him from embracing the new technology initially, the possibility of 'just anybody' holding knowledge of what he had spent the last three decades of his life developing and refining had sent shudders down his spine. However, another seller at a book fair had assured him that it would only be experts and potential buyers who would have any interest in his stock. Understanding this he'd grown enthusiastic realising it could prove a source of envy for other sellers and collectors. Soon after its birth he'd been sure others at auctions, sales and fairs had begun to grant him more respectful glances.

Right next door two adjacent shop fronts were under the banner of 'City Centre Books'. Despite its close proximity to Herbert's the passer-by, even one who seldom read anything other than celebrity biographies and tabloids, sensed that the two businesses were separated by an invisible divide that could never be bridged. The heavy tomes behind the polished windows of HQB seemed to look down in horror at the cardboard boxes full of print run over pap going for a pound or less which tried to draw people into the narrow rooms of CCB. Once inside there was the homely feel often found in second hand book shops, a reassuring press of book walls stretching to the ceiling to make the most of the little space available. An old dog could often be found happily ignorant of its surroundings, an obstacle to be negotiated or sometimes collided with by preoccupied browsers. Finally reaching the back of the first section of CCB one would often find a girl or two, usually students working part-time, busy behind a small serving hatch. Between thoughts about books, customers might find gossip from halls of residence and awkward moments during seminars joining their perhaps more lofty train of images and recollections. The second section was not able to be accessed from the first; customers had to leave and enter again, sometimes the owner might be found at the back of the other half scratching his head over some matter - perhaps wondering whether the shop could survive another year.

Still, a new second hand book shop had opened beyond these two only a couple of years before. After an ugly government building, an ethnic clothing shop and newsagents sat 'Bookworm Books'. With more spacious rooms than CCB what it lacked in homely charm it gained in elbow room; its pound buys were consigned to a dingy basement rather than littering the pathway - this extra dimension was barely indicated by a small cardboard sign inside. Michael Bannister perhaps didn't realise the effect his depressive presence had on customers entering the shop. His sales had been more disappointing than CCB's that year. None of the owners really applied the concept 'competition' to their shared presence in the street, perhaps subscribing to the notion that their close proximity created a valuable pool where the city's more reflective occupants and tourists relying on hearsay drifted, minds seeking diversion and even knowledge. Bannister sat brooding, day after day, wondering how the business would advance and what books really meant to him at the end of the day. Perhaps it was all futile - books as well as life - yet one had to make a living somehow and he couldn't bare accountancy anymore.

Finally 'Corner Bookshop' sat over the road almost obscured by the brash presence of one of the main lap dancing bars in the area. A tiny place its owner was also a frail presence, perched quietly by the door taking up precious book stacking space he was easy to miss as the customer gazed around the tightly packed walls and over stacked tables straining for their area or author of interest. The quality of the volumes was noticeable; despite a sign outside stating 'books wanted' Fanshawe was a real stickler for the untarnished and would often brutally reject potential stock brought in by those attracted by the sign on account of highlighter markings and scribbled notes, not to mention unsightly stains of all manner and description. Despite his profound attachment to tidiness, he, like CCB, allowed cardboard boxes full of battered editions to decorate the walkway outside in an attempt to arrest the attention of passers-by.

Recently a swanky new mini Sainsburys had opened up between the two bookshop zones. This event worried all the sellers except Herbert. If such a stalwart of middle-class consciousness could work its fingers so confidently onto the long street there was no knowing what new kind of people might start to find the stretch of interest. As they locked up at night they were uncomfortably aware of the light being emitted from the busy interior, the brash confidence of retail perfection far removed from their worlds - twilight existences held closely with little passion. Somewhere, back over in the tourist areas, was one of the giant chain book stores. Fanshawe had begun to fantasise about mini outlets starting to pop up around the nation's cities, prices ruthlessly cut, e-books, paper starting to be outmoded, second hand becoming only of interest through rarity - Herbert and his snobbish superiority surviving them all with his occasional lucrative sale to a rich collector.

Three years ago Herbert had entered CCB by accident. He'd been drinking with an old acquaintance from the trade most of the afternoon, had become disorientated, and found himself standing next to the philosophy section thinking he was in his own shop. One of the girls had recognised him - she'd occasionally seen him opening up his shop late morning - and had watched him swaying in the dimly lit passageway with interest. Mr Herbert had come to his senses after a minute or two, he'd pretended to pay interest in an old edition of Plato then left quickly, muttering something about the publishing house. He recalled the episode as the man stood before him, a collector with whom he'd had a number of dealings in the past.

"'Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific', magazines from the Nineteenth Century, not my thing but I'm sure they're worth a bit. I just went in out of curiosity, those chaps sometimes pick up something valuable but have no idea. I've found a lot of books that way. It's a joy to walk out knowing you've just snatched up a bargain. Surprised you don't pop in from time to time on the off chance."

Herbert's curiosity had been aroused, he'd started to salivate. "Erm, I don't go into those shops, well not on this street at least. Interminable conversations about their end of the trade if the owner's around, they all know me by sight, I've been here so long. I couldn't go in there."

"Well you may be missing out. Still I'm sure they'll sit there forever without interesting anybody. I could mention them to....."

"No, don't.." Herbert instantly regretted his excited interruption. "I'll look into it. If they're worth anything I'll knock off the finder's fee from your next purchase." His tone was serious, the book seller was never playful.

"Of course John, wouldn't want to get in the way of business now." The collector put down the distinguished volume he'd been examining.

Herbert moved into the back of the shop where his recently purchased laptop idled. With the title of the book still fresh in his mind he found the site he used to help bolster his considerable internal record of valuable old volumes. Basic information was quickly returned.

' Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. A complete set of rare astronomy and physics magazines. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) was founded in 1889 by a group of California astronomers after seeing a rare total solar eclipse. Estimated value: £2500.'

It was a tidy sum, yet Herbert banged the desk in frustration when considering the inordinate trouble he'd have to go to to get his hands on them. He tried to imagine what Blunt was asking. They were on display so he probably hadn't even done a rudimentary search on the Internet, he might even have let one of his young women price the hoard.

Fanshawe, of 'Corner Bookshop', sat on his stool daydreaming on a Monday morning. A student was roaming his small space looking lost, as they usually did. He'd pulled out a book and was staring at the back cover blankly; the book seller was briefly returned to his student days and felt again the confused passion he'd held for English Literature. He'd left with many half read novels lingering in his mind, the ones he'd got all the way through had interested him but he knew, somehow, he hadn't seen the whole picture. Sometimes, when feeling low, he got the same feeling about life in general. The young man approached awkwardly holding the book - Albert Camus. There'd been a term of French Literature at university, he remembered the title, 'The Fall'.

"Ah, I remember this," Fanshawe said with a slightly false air of affection.

"I've read it, I lost my copy, they cost a bomb if you buy them new."

"I know, it was all free when I was a student. I mean the education, not the books. Must be a struggle."

"Yeah, you were lucky. So you studied him did you, Camus?"

"Not really, just that one book I seem to remember. It's all a monologue, the character is a disillusioned lawyer."

"I like it. My tutor does too but I don't quite get all he says about it. It's not just that the character regrets his life, it's something more.." The student drifted back off into whatever daydream he'd been inhabiting.

"Existentialism, philosophy. Can't help you, I was studying literature."

The student half smiled then left the shop, almost tripping over one of the cardboard boxes outside.

The book the student had bought had been part of a collection the book seller had acquired a couple of weeks earlier. Fanshawe, Bannister and Blunt had all excitedly gone to a big old house in the city each thinking they'd been the sole invited. The daughter of an old gentleman who had been a customer at their shops in the past and who had sometimes made conversation had sent a card announcing his death and the fact his books had been left to them in his will. All of them had arrived at about the same time at the house and had stood outside awkwardly making polite conversation disappointed it was going to be a shared plunder. A friendly but sad middle-aged woman had led them to a small library that overlooked a charming stretch of perfect lawn. All of them had felt brief stabs of affection for each other as they'd followed the woman up the narrow flight of wooden stairs which led exclusively to the room. They had all been rather confused over these feelings and had quickly stubbed them out; Blunt and Fanshawe had always nodded to each other and sometimes made polite conversation but had rarely felt anything other than faintly threatened by the other - this was mainly down to a notion that the other knew more about books. Both had assumed a similar stance toward Bannister, the 'new kid on the block' as one of them had once named him in a rare moment of humour. The bonanza had been quite impressive, much better than the usual give-away. They'd divided everything up in terms of perceived value and books that all shared an interest in had been distributed fairly after a coin toss.

Juliet, one of the CCB girls, one of Blunt's girls, had just finished penning some postcards to be stuck to the covers of a pile of interesting books that were to be displayed, like in Waterstones, claiming to be 'staff recommendations'. She'd read a couple of them but the for rest she'd invented, going by the introductions she'd scanned and the publisher's and critic's blurb. It had been Mr Blunt's plan, he was forever coming up with new 'ideas' to coax browsers - often culled from the chain book stores which inspired in him a certain awe. He had a vision, a dream that a humble second hand seller might expand and evolve, that it might even be possible to imagine a chain of shops, possibly with coffee outlets attached, eventually spreading through all the cities of the nation. The fact his profits hadn't shown any meaningful growth since taking over the business a decade before didn't seem to deter him; he had a notion that second hand books might be made fashionable, that to be seen reading a well worn copy of a classic or contemporary author might one day be a desirable thing, more so than a new, more expensive copy. Perhaps digital books would force this change, creating a nostalgia for old volumes. Yet somebody might have whispered to him that reading books - new or old - wasn't really fashionable any more, and the very technology that he saw creating a new market for the second hand analogue was sending people to computers for their titillation, information and fantasy. Dreaming, however, made Blunt feel happier.

Juliet noticed the peculiar looking man was moving around rather awkwardly. Harriet came back in from lunch and admired Juliet's display - the latter didn't let on that she had cheated, she was hoping to be made assistant manager when Ben, the existing, left at the end of the year. She'd just finished her degree and was currently working full-time and preferred the little shop to some awful office she would no doubt find herself in otherwise.

"I was thinking about what you were saying the other day," Harriet said, still a little breathless after a hurried return.

"About what?"

"About being around books, standing next to old books."

"Oh yes, it makes you dream, wonder about what they've meant to people."

Harriet had only started working at the shop a few weeks before, she still had a year to go at university but was working full-time over the summer. Juliet hadn't yet let on how boring it could get in the shop, the dark recesses with the bright days of summer outside.

"All that knowledge within touching distance. It's, well, exciting I suppose. I'd never really felt it until I started working here."

The man had been moving fast along rows and was now rummaging around in an obscure corner of the shop - a low shelf mostly consisting of gardening books. The dog had taken an interest in him, the man was now knelt down with his head low to the ground and the animal seemed to be getting excited. He was pushing it away as it tried to get closer.

"I'm sorry, I wonder if you could do something about this dog, it keeps pestering me," Herbert, of 'Herbert Quality Books', said hurriedly in a slight panic. It appeared that the mixture, a rubbery mass on his face, was making the stupid creature go crazy. He was wearing eccentric attire at odds with his usual smart tweed; the alteration of his features affected by the latex on his face along with the thick glasses was surely enough to stop him being identified. If the beast didn't quiet down he would have to leave empty handed.

"I'm sorry sir," Juliet said, approaching the dog, Lucie. "She doesn't usually get like this." She lead it behind the counter where it continued to look toward the odd looking old man hungrily; he appeared to have some kind of skin disease. Harriet gave her an amused look as the man dipped back down to the lower shelf, he seemed to be getting into quite a state about something. They couldn't have known that his mood had now changed from anxiety to exaltation.

It was a first edition of Webster's 'Compendious Dictionary of the English Language'. He knew it was worth more than two thousand pounds. Blunt was an idiot and he was sure, now more than ever, that he had stumbled on a load of books somehow that he had no idea of the value of and that there could well be more items of value, perhaps still in storage. Herbert gathered himself and approached the counter, trying to look calm and sober but his hands were quivering a little as he held the heavy volume out in front of him.

"You wouldn't know if this was part of a consignment of books would you by any chance? There may be another volume that is supposed to accompany this.." Herbert said as he pulled out a ten pound note to pay the pencil scrawled price. He was improvising now, talking rubbish, but the girls were unlikely to discover his conceit.

"Well, it hasn't been out there long, let me think.."

She was a very attractive girl, Herbert realised why she, like the volume, was rallying his senses. The spitting image of Miranda Southern, the unrequited love of his late youth met during the tail end of his twenties working for a publishing company in London. Nobody had made him feel the same again, he was unmarried.

Somebody had come into the shop as the girl had been speaking and was now standing behind him. By the reaction on the girl's face he felt sure it was the proprietor; he prayed his disguise would convince, if Blunt were to discover him his entire ruse was now sure to be made out.

"Mr Blunt, this gentleman wants to know if this book was with other books like it."

A hand came into view, it handled the volume, whose details the girl was taking down in log book.

"Let me have a look. Well, there were a few older books yes, it was a consignment, quite sad really, an old customer of mine died. It was a bit of a gathering, the other sellers from up the street were invited too."

Mr Blunt didn't seem too interested in gaining eye contact so Herbert absorbed the information and said he might be back, the dog following him into the street. He couldn't just go back into his shop; he'd locked it up for the afternoon and had returned home to put on his disguise. The possibility of other finds sent him up the street to the other shops, though he still lacked confidence in his new appearance.

Bannister had left his assistant, Margaret, a part-timer who took over a few afternoons a week, in charge of Bookworm's books. She usually took note of customer's comings and goings, the till was located near the door and it was important to notice if anybody had that look about them that might suggest they were willing to leave without paying. She'd seen her fair share of eccentrics in there in the past, oddballs obsessed with some obscure reach of history, UFOs, fantasy books or the occult. She assumed the man with poor skin and ridiculous pony tail was one of these and fully expected to be subjected to a quite lengthy enquiry concerning the shop's current stock and possible future acquisitions. She had little knowledge of either the latter or the former, making do with the little information Bannister let slip; she had only a passing interest in books, mostly enjoying travel books and murder mysteries - she had told Bannister the shop needed a computer database and that she had experience with them and he'd always promised to do something about initiating the project. The strange looking man went straight to the back without saying hello and was out of sight for some time, the occasional thud was heard as books were accidentally dislodged in what must have been a quite violent searching process. She could not have known the exhilaration the man was undergoing in the back room, sheltered from the majority of street noise, a hushed atmosphere reminding of a church or library accompanied by the pleasant aroma of aged paper and ink.

Still the image of Miranda Southern stayed with Herbert and the amazing likeness in the girl. During his search in the back room he began to feel something strange. The possibility of finding more valuable books began to matter less than the prospect of seeing her again. He knew it was a mad and unrealistic idea, there was no way she would ever be interested in a man of his age, yet just being in her presence seemed to flood him with waves of emotion he hadn't felt for many years which had once seemed to be the very reason for his continued existence. He and Miranda had been on a number of dates and things had started to get somewhere despite his accursed awkwardness around women but she'd been wooed by a high flyer in the firm and soon lost interest in whatever morsels he'd had to offer. There had been others but nothing had ever worked for long and more and more he'd lost himself in his other passions - book finding, fishing and a little painting now and then. She'd been a about people, he was not, they probably couldn't have survived for long even if the bastard from the nearby office hadn't walked all over their possible future. When the books came into view his heart - this time - remained at a steady rhythm as he noted their possible value in a cool way. A first edition of Hemingway's 'The Green Hills of Africa' would probably fetch over two and half grand and it was in lovely condition. He picked it up calmly and opened it. Well it had been valued at thirty pounds so at least Bannister had noted the fact it was a first edition; still, his feeling of contempt for the man was only slightly less than the for the other seller down the street.

He scanned shelves and took in information but still Miranda's image preoccupied him, he'd reached such a pitch of fantasy that at some points he thought she might tap him on the shoulder, he would turn, and they would both embrace. The girl from the shop would transform into the real Miranda from all those years ago and this time let the dream be, and put his life back on course. As if by way of consolation the first edition of Salinger's 'Nine Stories', worth in the region of four thousand pounds, came into view. He snatched it up, greedily this time, like somebody who had gone without food. He was almost at the end of his search; he had been in a second back room when he'd made the Salinger find, he worked his way quickly over the rubbish on display at the front of the shop then went over to the woman to pay. She confirmed that the two books had been part of the hoard that Blunt had mentioned earlier having put them out herself only the other week. He hoped dearly that she would mention his enquiry to Bannister, that he would carry out a little research and would find out what he had let slip away. In this he was not entirely cruel; it would teach him, and possibly Blunt if the news spread, to take the job seriously in the future if they were ever going to make any money at it.

'Corner Bookshop' held no surprises and by this time he cared less. He'd once been on friendlier terms with Fanshawe. He started to feel that the other man had begun to sense something during his time in the store despite doing his best to avoid him. Perhaps, in his increasingly hurried search, he'd missed something, yet it was her, only her, now, that really interested him. As he made his way toward his car sweltering in his thick jumper on the warm summer evening with the substance on his face now beginning to melt he spied the young woman approaching him. Their eyes briefly made contact and she seemed to suppress a slight giggle on recognising him from before. Wounded and lost he lost grip on the bag he was carrying and it fell to the ground and the books were sent skidding onto the warm pavement.

Edited by Nexus on 04/06/13 - 11:08 AM
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