It's 1982 and I've just moved to London as a student of modern languages. I enter Skoob Books on Sicilian Avenue, just off Kingsway, close to Covent Garden. This popular secondhand bookshop has two rooms. Inside the second room, accessed via a doorway just beyond the counter, is a bookcase devoted to white-spined books. Why would you do that, I think to myself. I examine them. They are all published by Picador. What is special about Picador, I ask myself.
Twenty-five years later, I have a collection of Picadors that I shelve together in a series of white bookcases. I have been collecting them, steadily, since the mid-90s, and seriously for the last few years. Skoob Books has moved at least twice since the 1980s. It moved to the Brunswick Centre, as it was called when I lived nearby in the early 80s, a Brutalist construction of concrete and glass that was home to the Renoir Cinema, a few desultory shops and more than 500 flats. Nowadays it's known as either the Brunswick Shopping Centre, with its Waitrose, River Island, Holland & Barrett etc or, simply, the Brunswick. In my mind it will always be the Brunswick Centre, where Jack Nicholson descended a series of steps (now demolished) in Michelangelo Antonioni's 1975 film The Passenger.
Having enjoyed a spell inside the main amphitheatre-like Brunswick, Skoob is now located on the north side of the complex, close to the rear entrance to Waitrose. Sadly, they no longer shelve their Picadors together, but have plenty in stock when I visit. Books in Skoob are no longer quite as affordable as they once were. Displayed, inside certain books in pencil, are current prices of titles that are still in print (in different editions). Skoob's own price is pencilled in also, cheaper than the current new price, but perhaps not as cheap as you might find elsewhere. There's something about this that seems slightly at odds with the mindset of the secondhand book buyer. Faced with the choice between, say, the current Penguin Modern Classics edition of Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat and the 1970s Penguin edition featuring Elizabeth Taylor on the cover, is it merely a matter of the difference in cost?
That Liz Taylor edition of The Driver's Seat was in a series of Spark's works featuring similar photographic covers. I buy a copy of her Robinson to replace the copy I gave to my student Barbara Robinson a year ago. In addition I splash out on a lovely 1985 Picador edition of The Novels of Friedrich Dürrenmatt (£7.50) and an unusual black Picador edition of Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth that I have eyed on previous visits to Skoob but never bought. It may not be able to join my main collection, but I can no longer resist it.
I can resist – but only because I already have copies of all of them – four of Trevor Hoyle's novels, including two of his best, Vail and Blind Needle. I'm also entertained, as I think Clive James would be, to see the veteran broadcaster and author's collection of literary-critical essays, From the Land of Shadows, in a handsome 1983 Picador edition, shelved in Erotic Fiction.
So just what is it about Picadors that makes them special? Is it the particular design (discontinued around 2000)? Is it the quality of the work? Is it the sentimental attachment to a formative time in my life – having just left home and moved to London, becoming a student, full of hopes and dreams for the future, already thinking about trying to write? The answer, I suspect, is all of those things. Skoob Books used to produce a guide to secondhand bookshops in the UK. I got through three different editions. If there were a 2017 edition it would be a much slimmer volume, but, for all the bookshops that have closed down, Skoob keeps going. This is a matter for great celebration. Long live Skoob!