“…for more than thirty years my happiest dreams have been of second-hand bookshops…”
-Graham Greene, 1973, in Reflections, 1991
One of my favourite things of London is its second-hand shops. Over the years I’ve developed personal routes where, when I have the time (read: make the time for it) I walk from one to another in a sort of individual pilgrimage often including book shops, record shops, comics shops and other pop culture memorabilia, maps, stamps, all sorts of print and material culture shops.
These establishments (without them necessarily knowing it) become a type of friend, someone you get to know intimately who can offer just the right thing to satisfy a particular need at a given moment in time. This need is not only materialistic or consumerist. It’s not what people call “retail therapy”. It’s more like a type of emotional, spiritual counseling or mentorship- one pays a visit to these shops because they offer, like libraries, serendipitous journeys of discovery. One steps into them often without looking for something very specific in mind- it’s not the item that gets you there but the place itself, its reputation as the consequence of careful or accidental curatorial work. The drive to visit them can be described as a very particular type of physical and intellectual hunger for a special, unexpected artifact waiting for the right collector to appreciate its relative rarity or uniqueness, a star in a constellation with links waiting to be traced, a lost piece in the ever-growing jigsaw puzzle of who we have been and are in the process of becoming.
Over the years I have seen many of these establishments close down. The other day I added another one to my own personal graveyard of closed shops- Pleasures of Past Times (PoPT), on 11 Cecil Court, which had stood in that same location since 1967, as its store sign proudly announced.
How can one explain the feeling of loss when one arrives to a location and finds it empty and closed for good? This feeling can be easily dismissed as conservative, retrograde and dangerous nostalgia. This is not to deny it is a nostalgic feeling: it is, of course, since we are talking about second-hand shops of a particular type, a feeling always-already embedded in nostalgia understood as an ongoing attempt to recover, as collector, what one always wanted and never had, or what one feels deserves appreciation, for one reason or another, beyond its relative obsolescence or even practical meaninglessness in the contemporary world. I’d argue that it’s not necessarily toxic or dangerous to feel a sense of loss when we witness a transformation in the urban landscape, particularly when it is tied to changing paradigms in our relationships to otherwise symbolically meaningful objects that increasingly are thought of as obsolete.
Can such contradictory, complex emotion be entertained or described? Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history, his reading of Klee’s Angelus Novus? I feel like there can be a type of critical, self-aware nostalgia that, rather than idealising a mythical past, performs itself as a critique of “progress” disguised as higher rents, the rejection of the symbolic in favour of the strictly practical (estate agents, food and clothes, not print books, music in physical formats or non-digital art) as expressed by the ongoing demystification of material culture, accelerated by the belief that all experience can be digitized, that material objects are clutter, etc. A kind of “progress” defined by an ethos of individualism and isolation: why go anywhere if you can just get it delivered to your own home?
Checking PoPT’s website I realise it is now only an online shop- which is better than the worse alternative of its total disappearance, and a fate many other similar shops have had of late. The sense of loss for its brick-and-mortar address is not necessarily for the items it used to stock, buy and sell, but for the social, collective, cultural experience it contributed to as part of a bigger formal or informal network of similar shops. I could never afford to spend much money at PoPT, and I must say I used to find it a tad intimidating- my limited budget meant sometimes I just looked at its window and marveled at much stuff I would have loved to add to my collection.
In what could potentially be called today a “psychogeographic” essay titled “Second-hand Bookshops” (1973), Graham Greene describes evocatively his passion for these establishments. “I don’t know how Freud would have interpreted them”, writes Greene in the opening line, “but for more than thirty years my happiest dreams have been of second-hand bookshops” (I personally rarely dream of bookshops, but indeed for more than thirty years my happiest memories include them).
Greene also describes the always-changing landscape of second-hand bookshops in London:
“No, the West End is no longer my hunting ground any more than Charing Cross Road, but, thank God! Cecil Court remains Cecil Court…” (Reflections, 1991).
In a way, Cecil Court still remains Cecil Court. But it is rapidly changing. Without PoPT Cecil Court is, for those of us who have visited it over the years, significantly different- Pleasures of Past Times will be missed as a shop that once made Cecil Court remain Cecil Court.