In the seaside town where I work I've lost count of how many shops have closed this year, the victims of poor sales and high rents. The latest is a secondhand bookshop which had a wonderfully eclectic selection of books. However, the closing down sale wasn't their finest hour...
A print of an owl for £10? But worse still was the awful 'original' oil painting of Chinese junks - yours for a mere fifty quid. Perhaps they're better at selling books than paintings.
I used to walk past the shop at closing time and wonder how they could afford to have so many staff. I now have my answer: they couldn't. It's a great shame as we need cavernous, fusty old bookshops that smell of damp and crawl with booklice, because amongst the many out of date travel guides and memoirs by people we no longer care about there are hidden gems. Browsing in any bookshop is a delight, but I particularly love the antiquarian ones.
I know the book trade well enough to have a fairly clear idea of what the average Waterstone's, Borders and WH Smith's will have in stock. But when you walk into an independently-run shop that specialises in secondhand books, there's always the possibility that you may find a book that will change your life.
One of my best serendipitous moments in bookselling was when I started unpacking a box and came across Sven Lindqvist's Desert Divers - a slim volume that I probably wouldn't have noticed in the travel writing section. I read the book and was so captivated by it that I felt compelled to explore further and three months later, found myself sitting in the Cafe Pierre Loti in Istanbul as a direct result of opening a cardboard on a dull day in February.
At the moment retail is all about consolidation and homogenisation, but there is a quiet revolution going on. People are waking up to the fact that everywhere is beginning to look the same and are trying to reassert their local identity. In the 1990s I remember travelling to Wales for a stag weekend. Our van broke down and we found ourselves in an unfamiliar town. I wandered through a shopping precinct and tried to work out where we were, but all I could see was Dixons, Woolworths, Superdrug, WH Smith, Boots etc... In the end I had to walk up to someone and ask them 'Where am I?' (The answer was Leatherhead). That can't be right (and it's nowhere near Wales).