Shopping and C******

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I’m an avid fan of Christian Hayes’ Classic Film Show. My thoughts here have developed from and in response to some of those raised in his article The Obsessive Movie Collector: Space, Time and Videotapes. I particularly like Christian’s honesty. ‘You really shouldn’t be buying more movies – you haven’t even watched the ones you’ve got’ he says. ‘Sorry mom’, we respond. Then sheepishly, as if with a little grin he admits, ‘Well, if I’m honest, this weekend I..’

And he’s right. I doubt very much he and I are alone in having many more movies and books in our respective houses than we’re really going to watch or read anytime soon. Christian briefly brings up box sets – I think this is the thing that tips the balance for many of us.. They’re just so damned cheap. And yet each one leaves you with four or five more films you really want to watch but still haven’t. Each time you buy one.. The guilt mounts.. ‘I have too much stuff and no space!’

I’m going to leave aside Christian’s emphasis on collecting, which may be more his thing than mine. I want to talk about shopping and… charity. Like many people these days it is an extremely rare occasion that I buy either books or movies at full price. The reason for this is a combination of having only a moderate amount of money and having a certain degree of pride at being good at sniffing out a deal. I go online, yes, and things are always cheaper. But mostly I go to charity shops. 

In both cases – but particularly the latter – the possibility of buying cheaply comes with an important added prospect. Chance. When you can afford to buy something on the hope that it might be interesting you discover things that, before, would have been out of sight, or perhaps visible only on the periphery. Now they sit on your shelf. You glance up at the dense book called Social Theory and all of a sudden you’ve read a chapter on Hegel and you’re thinking dialectically and feeling very clever. Then you notice the kids’ book that a friend, who’s a schoolteacher, told you was quite special and it turns out to be sharp and breaks your heart. And then again you read a collection of stories because it has Louise Brooks on the cover..

The kids’ book was The Boy With the Striped Pyjamas. I’m going to let you guess about the short stories – Any ideas? I picked up The Moviegoefrom a charity shop, too. I’d never heard of Walker Percy. Just a few examples..

The book Close-Ups (pictured above) set me back £1.50 in a PDSA shop today – it is A4, over 600 pages long and includes writing by industry figures from Hollywood’s Golden Age – writers, directors etc – on the stars of the Golden Age (as well as unfortunately ‘beyond’.) Most books in charity shops are not quite this good value! And, thinking realistically, many of these books I buy remain on my bookshelf untouched. Yet saving money has nothing to do with what I’m talking about here. In fact I sometimes like to imagine the duds as counteracting the successes, so that I don’t really save much money, as it makes me feel less as though I’m ‘stealing from the charities.’

Even if I had the money to buy books and films in bulk from mainstream bookstores this kind of chance occurrence simply wouldn’t occur to the same degree.. Firstly, almost all the books I buy in charity shops are simply not available in the mainstream bookstores. Secondly, the shelving is set out to avoid random chance and to set up instead calculated chances, e.g. you’re tricked into only buying recent fiction with special ‘3 for 2’ deals, rather than anything older. (I sometimes feel a little wary of the ‘If you like this, you’ll love these’ operation on Amazon for this reason- that it can deter you from looking elsewhere on the site.) And thirdly, sections of book genre are rigidly separated and subdivided.. Customers that are into ‘buses’ might get disturbed by ‘cars’ every once in a while but that’s about as crazy as it gets.. (The search engine system can cause the same problem on Amazon and the web in general since you decide what genre you want in advance, by the words you choose, rather than really browsing over everything on offer as you might in charity bookshops.) In contrast, charity shop staff are not paid so they are under no obligation to expend too great an amount of energy on shop layout etc!

So. It’s the combination of sheer bulk, obscure titles and genres of book outside one’s normal scope that matters. These three are what charity shops offer a reader who is willing to truly respect chance – to walk into a shop with no idea what kind of book he’ll come out with.. And videotapes too – I found the original 70s TV series of Survivors on video a few years ago. I’d never heard of it before – and it’s terrific. I got Timeslip recently too, another 70s TV series, which may not be as good I fear. That’s the risk you take, but it’s definitely worth it.. And who cares if you end up with too much stuff – just take the stuff you don’t want right back to a charity shop – preferably one that’s for a really good cause like the British Heart Foundation or Cancer Research – and let the whole thing come full circle. Happy buying!

p.s. You’ll notice I didn’t even mention second-hand bookshops in this article.. They didn’t even occur to me most of the way through writing – surely a sign of the times, since these can really only be found in Central London now. There’re some that say charity shops are taking over from second-hand bookshops and these people are not happy about this.. Let me know what you think on this anyone? Certainly there are more specialisms and rarities in second-hand bookshops. Tho on the flip-side they always seem to be a bit more expensive and they’re shelved more clearly – both of these lead to less possibilities for chance to have its effects.

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2 responses to “Shopping and C******

  1. As a rather shite consumer, being someone who seldom submits to the idea of leisure shopping, who boringly prefers to spend/waste his free time not traipsing around generic shops, and whose politics are nicely supported by the feeling of tedium this pursuit provokes, I do have to admit that I’m enticed by the lure of the second-hand bookshop.

    As you say, it’s the element of chance that makes it interesting. Go into a large bookshop, or any of the standard brands that lace the high street, and you know what you’re going to get, there’re no surprises. Same with the internet: it’s all there, cut the superfluous minutes and order, easy. And that appeals to me. But second-hand bookshops retain the possibility that you’ll find the book you’ve been thinking of reading for an age (and the possibility that you won’t), and that it’ll likely be affordable, shorn of the tyrany of the RRP. It’s enjoyable to observe the additions to the shelves in these shops, to see what inviting prose could be swirling around your head if the purchase is realised.

    I don’t know whether or not this permits my readmission into the game of consumerism, I’m still waiting for my card to come in the post.

  2. “Shorn of the tyranny of the RRP” – I like it!

    Good point about the sense of the shelves as constantly changing.. While mainstream bookstores replace each sold book with another copy of the same (thus doomed to endless repetition) second-hand and charity bookstores fill the space however they can, so that each time you go there you’re sure to find an old book that’s new to the store..

    It’s great when you see a book you’d never felt you had any hope of finding, as you mention. And I love that feeling when you see a book that you’d never heard of before but which looks just as worthy of your attention as anything famous – it feels like in some small way you’re serving to upset hierarchies and canons etc..

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