The Carnforth Bookshop sells new books on the ground floor and second hand books upstairs. The first book I find is a Picador, Christopher Hope’s Signs of the Heart: Love and Death in Languedoc. On the back is a sticker with, on it, the name of the bookshop I’m in and the price, £6.99, which is the book’s RRP. So, either a customer bought it, read it and sold it back to the shop, or it simply migrated up here from the ground floor having failed to sell at full price. I pick out three other books – Thomas Healy’s boxing memoir A Hurting Business (Picador), Paul Bowles’s 1966 novel Up Above the World in an attractive white-spined Abacus edition to go with four others I have in the same series, and Gordon Burn’s Alma Cogan, which, somehow, I have never read – inexplicable when I think about how much I loved Fullalove.
The Carnforth Bookshop is tidy and well ordered. Yes, there are a lot of rooms, but you won’t get lost, unlike six miles down the road in the Old Pier Bookshop in Morecambe. Twenty-six years ago, the owner, who calls himself Mr Bookshop on the shop’s Facebook page, put a couple of shelves up in his mother’s cafe. A quarter of a century later Mr Bookshop presides over an interior space that is a cross between an Escher diagram and twice Turner Prize-shortlisted artist Mike Nelson’s head-spinning installation The Coral Reef. But the Old Pier Bookshop is not only a work of art; it’s also a warm and welcoming shop packed full of reasonably priced books. While chaos might be your first impression, you soon start to spot some vestigial signs of category separation, but wherever gaps had been left, they have been filled with, it seems, random books, perhaps what was to hand, or what would fit the space. The books seem almost like building materials; you wonder what would happen if they were all removed.
From scattered locations within the maze-like funhouse I find three Picadors – Andre Dubus’s Broken Vessels, Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race, Hermann Hesse’s Demian – and one Picador Classic, Hesse’s Siddharta. But that’s not all. Three 1970s Penguins – two Andrea Newmans and a Françoise Sagan – and a Hardy Boys novel, The Mystery of the Samurai Sword, which I see is number 58 in Franklin W Dixon’s series of children’s novels about brothers Frank and Joe Hardy and the various scrapes they get into. This makes me think about my impulse to collect these books.
I’ve got about ten Hardy Boys books. Maybe one or two have been mine since I was a child and I enjoyed reading the Hardy Boys’ adventures. The others I’ve bought since, mainly in recent years. I have no intention of rereading them. And there are at least 58. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not rational.
A similar thing is going on with Hermann Hesse’s Siddharta. Once I buy this Picador Classics edition, I will own three copies of the 1922 novel, the other two being the 1973 Picador edition (given to me by David Rose) and a 1998 Picador edition (from Chorlton Oxfam Bookshop) that manages to be almost twice as long, thanks partly to a 70-page introduction. If I am ever going to read Siddharta – and that’s far from certain – I surely don’t need three copies (the same translation features in each). But I can justify the retention of each one according to the parameters of my process. I am collecting all the white-spined Picadors, including different editions of the same book where there is a substantial difference between them (oh, all right, also including different covers if each cover is sufficiently noteworthy), and all the black-spined Picador Classics (there are many fewer of them). If the collecting impulse itself is irrational, the ways in which I am pursuing my aims are, I think, perfectly rational. If I am going mad, I am at least doing it in an ordered way.
If the Old Pier Bookshop represents the collecting impulse, the Carnforth Bookshop is an analogue for my modus operandi. I wouldn’t want one without the other; I need both.