If there was a golden age of secondhand bookshop browsing, for me it fell between 1995 and 2000, though the afterglow lasted through to 2005. The book I’ve chosen is far from being a gem in physical appearance, but it marks the moment of transition. I picked up A Portrait of Michael Roberts (1949) for thirty-five Canadian dollars while I was in Victoria, British Columbia, in May 2000; I was there for three weeks working with Herbert Read’s papers in the University of Victoria. While I was there, one of the archive assistants mentioned a new online website that catalogued the holdings of antiquarian booksellers around the world, and which coincidentally was based in Victoria: abebooks.com.
Until then secondhand bookbuying had been serendipitous and speculative. My golden age began in January 1995 because that’s when I started my first properly paid and full-time post as a lecturer, at the University of Wales Bangor. I paid quite a few visits to my friends A— and A–, who had recently moved to Hereford, and Hereford put me in reach of Hay-on-Wye; sometimes as a day trip from their house, sometimes as a detour on the way. Book-browsing at Hay was a full sensory experience: not just the sight of books, but the chill of basement rooms, the creaking of old doors, and the smell of slightly mildewed pages. I came back with all sorts of wonders. They were mostly, I now realise, belated acquisitions of books I had focused on when doing my doctorate. (Moving to Bangor deprived me of the resources of the Bodleian, so I was trying to compensate). But some others were speculative purchases of works for future reading and study.
The coming of ABE made it far easier to find obscure titles and to be sure that you weren’t spending over the odds for a given book, but it removed the excitement of serendipity and foraging, and it removed the sensory engagement in the quest. The element of speculative thinking about what you might need has been displaced by the instrumentalised search for what you do need in the present moment.
A Portrait of Michael Roberts was published by the College of St Mark and St John, then an Anglican teacher-training college in Chelsea; it later relocated to Plymouth, and became the present-day University of St Mark and St John, popularly ‘Marjon.’ Roberts had become its Principal in 1944, but his career was cut short by his being diagnosed with leukaemia; he died in December 1948.
The book I found in Victoria came with a mysterious inscription on the front over “FOR LADY SIMON * JANUARY 1951” and a big arrow saying “SEE PAGE TWELVE.” The arrow refers to the start of M. F. Cunliffe’s chapter about Roberts’s time as a teacher at the Newcastle Royal Grammar School, but whether Cunliffe was the presenter of the volume I’ve no way of knowing. When I bought the book I’d not heard of Lady Simon, but have since found out she was the Manchester-based politician and educational reformer Shena Simon, Lady Simon of Wythenshawe (1883-1972); how her copy of the Portrait found its way to Canada is also something of a mystery. I came to hear of her again because my partner studied for her A-levels at the now-defunct Shena Simon College in central Manchester. My copy of the book isn’t a gem in any conventional sense, but it knots together several important threads.