Liam Murray Bell on second hand bookshops

Liam Murray Bell on second hand bookshops

We walked back via Kelvinbridge. This was the mid-nineties so my team, Partick Thistle, were on another slide down the leagues. With red-and-yellow scarf up over my mouth, I practised my griping and grumbling about the game. I knew what it took to be a real fan. Like the man, in the seats behind us, who said "I’ve seen enough of this" after ten minutes but then stayed until the end to join in with the boos.

My dad, walking beside me, paused by the turn-off to Otago Lane. I carried on for a step or two, dragging at his hand. This was another part of our Saturday routine: Dad wanting to stop off at every second-hand bookshop and record store on the way home and me, fidget-filled, chiding at him to pass them by. I began negotiations:
            "Ten pence a minute."
            "A penny."
            "Five pence."
            "Two."
            "Fine, but I get to time it."

He unbuckled his watch and handed it down to me. I started timing from the moment we left the main road. The shop was down a cobbled lane. The walls seemed to be made of books. Piles upon piles. There was no order to them, so searches needed to be carefully planned archaeological digs. Landslides were common.

There were no Asterix comics or Just William books. I’d checked. All the books seemed to have titles as complex and multi-layered as the stains on their spines. My dad picked them up, flicked through two or three pages, then set them back down.

After 11 minutes, I tapped at the watch in my hand. I’d made 22 pence. He held up two fingers – two more minutes. By the time we actually left, I’d made another eight pence. Then I earned 18 pence in the record store – where my dad pulled the black discs from their sleeves, inspected their ridges, then slipped them back onto the shelf – and another ten pence from a bookshop that had a cat curled on the counter. Tabby fur against tarnished, mottled leather hardbacks.

My dad was in debt to the tune of 58 pence by the time we made it home. I settled for a single shiny 50 pence coin and a promise that I could stay up for Match of the Day.

Two decades later, I’m in Brighton on a sunny Saturday. Partick Thistle are playing, but the best I can do is check the score on my mobile phone. We drink gin cocktails at a beachfront bar: me, my wife, and two friends. As clouds gather, we make our way up to North Laine. By that time, the final whistle has blown in Glasgow. Partick Thistle win at home for the first time this season, against Aberdeen. My dad is there and so too, presumably, are the "real fans" – who will mutter ‘"about bloody time" and turn towards the exits.

In the tight capillary streets of North Laine, I hold two fingers up to my wife – two minutes – then veer off into a bookshop. There are electronic security detectors at the door, but I don’t think the pencil marks inside the covers of the books would set them off. I browse quickly, aware that the others are waiting. There is a book of stories by Deborah Levy that I’d like and a novel by Jon McGregor. Then I come across a book by Ronan Bennett. I loved his The Catastrophist, so I pull this book off the shelf too. I have three now. Each has a pencil-scribbled £3 inside, the pound-sign looking like a reflection of the number. I only have seven pounds and change, though, so I’m faced with a dilemma. This isn’t the type of place that accepts cards.

I don’t know how many minutes pass before my wife comes to find me and turns my left wrist with gentle fingers until my watch is facing upwards.
            "The others are waiting," she says.
            "I have three."
            "That’s ok," she smiles. "You can have three."
            "I don’t have enough."
            "Do you want some money?"
            I nod.

For the rest of the evening, I sit with a brown paper parcel of books beside me. With the arrival of each new drink, I remind myself not to forget them. By the fifth or sixth, neurosis takes over and I borrow a pen from the barman so that I can scrawl my address on the package – just in case.

On the train back home, I keep my arms crossed over them. We debate the Scottish referendum with a drunk from Hastings who tells me that I’d have to be certifiable to vote Yes, but then confides that, if he were Scottish, he would definitely vote for independence. I point out the contradiction, so he repeats his argument. The same words but louder.

To give myself an excuse for ignoring him, I peel open my parcel and flick through the first few  pages of each of my second-hand books. There is a coffee-stain on the second page of the McGregor book.

When I get home, I will phone my dad. He will tell me about the match and I will tell him about the books I bought this afternoon. It will cost nine pence per minute.