The second hand book shop on Crellin Street smelled of terrible things: damp paper, mould, yellowing cardboard and old women’s woolen wear left out in the rain. It was one of those shops that had a stairway glimpsed through a beaded curtain. The magical shopkeeper was a woman with spectacles so large it was like they were broadcasting her eyes at you and a cardigan with a Biro and an iron wool hairdo made for scouring chip pans.
The system was simplicity itself. All the books had prices written on the first page like a fraction. £1/50p. Which meant it’ll cost you a pound and if you bring it back you’ll get 50p, but as credit. Not money. That’d be daft. A little card was kept with all your purchases and your credit.
There were sections of crime, science fiction, thriller, romance, horror and a large tub of 10p books which had no bring back value. If you bought a book from here, you kept it or threw it away. There was – and I recall this with something like wonder – a dirty magazine section that the shopkeeper kept firmly under wraps which I remember was only available to older patrons on request and was – I tremor to admit – also second hand.
I loved this shop. Of course I should have used the library. My auntie was children’s librarian and we were taken to and fro from the library whenever we wanted, but my lack of discipline and innumerate stupidity meant that the library always seemed like the most expensive option. I’d always build up fines that the librarian would ruefully note it would’ve been cheaper for me to have simply bought the book. This happened with such regularity that I was occasionally forgiven and logged as an eccentric character like the homeless guy with string for a belt who slept on a chair near the Eastern Philosophy section. So partly for economic reasons, partly for the shame, Crellin Street bookshop made more sense.
I mostly frequented the Science Fiction and the 10p section. On the careful instructions of my friend Jasper I would venture into horror, but I was always repulsed by the ickiness of the covers: James Herbert books with rats tails emerging or slimy slugs slopping out of seductive seventies ladies’ lips. Yuk. No. I preferred Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlien, A. E. Vioght, Harry Harrison, Harlan Ellison, and Frank Herbert. I even liked the fantasy stuff of the Conan books, especially as I got older and the busty Amazons of the Roger Dean style cover art appealed. Weirdly, it was when I was younger that I read all of the 007 novels including the John Gardener ones and every single book that Alastair Maclean ever wrote.
At a certain point I graduated from Science Fiction. I wanted something a bit different. The shopkeeper was brilliant. I remember to this day telling her did she have anything good. ‘I mean really good.’ Stupid, I know. She gave me Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This was a book that changed my life. It had all the imagination of Science Fiction, all the trepidation of horror, all the sexual longing and frustration of fantasy and it was set on this strange planet called Earth. It made me realize that the robots and space ships, the monsters and bizarre Lovecraftian alternative realities, were nothing as compared to the vagaries of reality, actual reality.
Returning home a couple of years ago it turned out that G. had bought the shop. She’d made money in some dot.com venture, bought herself a house, a nippy car, paid of her mum’s mortgage and leased/bought or something the second hand bookshop of my youth. She invited me passed the hinged counter, through the beaded curtain and up the stairs. There was a kitchen up there. We had a cup of tea and she showed me a copy of From Russia with Love which was worth stupid money. She’d been carefully not to write the exact figure on the first page like a fraction, with the money you’d get back if you’d brought it back once you’d read it.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.