These Spectacles Were Made for Browsing

What was the first thing I bought off the internet?

Could it have been that signed photo of Denholm Elliott, or was it the Mark of the Devil official and unused promotional sick bag? I was hooked on Ebay for a while. It was Will Smith (fine writer and some time “posh boy” comedian) who told me of this wonderful world of tat and memorabilia. The ‘Look Back in Anger’ and ‘Corridors of Blood’ half sheets  that face each other in my front room were found on ebay, as well as a vast number of oddball films on VHS, some delightfully bizarre, The Curious Dr Humpp for instance, many better served being watched as a 90 second trailer than 90 minute feature. 

The novelty eventually wore off around the same time as ebay went from being an extravagant, vast and eccentric warehouse junk shop, to a tightly patrolled sales house. Like so many markets, what was once a glorious collection of house clearance junk became commerce. Shit that really was worth next to nothing, merely by dint of some kind of festering nostalgia because it had existed in the past, sold for foolish wads of cash. Every Pez dispenser a pharaoh’s prize. 

As the internet has aged, I realise it may not be a free playground of ideas, but an increasingly policed environment especially designed to lure you to buy things. At each page you haunt, a bespoke item, tailored for your mass preference. 

Reading of the decline in independent bookshops today, I was reminded of one reason I stopped using Amazon for most things. I like browsing. I like going into shops with an individual flavour, with a grumpy shopkeeper annoyed his sleep has been disturbed by a third customer, or a talkative owner excited by your purchases and eager to share your enthusiasm. I love bargains, but I fear they might come at a price. I have never forgotten the lesson of House of Hammer magazine and WH Smith. House of Hammer aka Hammer’s House of Horrors aka Hammer’s Halls of Horror was an eleven year old who hung around graveyards’ dream publication. It contained comic strip versions of Hammer films, creepy terror tales “presented” by Van Helsing and features on Cushing, Lee and all horror things. Just looking at the covers now gives my stomach a churn of excitement

After a break of a couple of years, it returned, but not for long. The story I remember at the time was that WH Smith, happy curators of a top shelf of pornography, felt that the current climate of video nasties at horror outrage meant that they could not stock House of Hammer. Even all those years ago, they controlled most of the magazine market, distribution to the “independent” stores as well as all their own outlet. 

So, though the vast internet booksellers seem to have all my needs at knockdown prices, I don’t like the idea of walking to my favourite bookshop one day and finding it long gone. The custom I took away in my need for £1.79 off now leaves me only able to browse at home. 

I am not sure whether HMV is alive or dead now, but what I liked about it in my early vinyl purchasing days, and even more so in places like London’s Selectadisc in Berwick St or Edinburgh’s Avalanche Records (especially with its candy front store in West Nicolson St ) was the interest those working there seemed to have for what they were selling. I like enthusiasm and knowledge. I was glad to be led to the Mo Wax compilation Headz or the first Malcolm Middleton release. (later HMV seemed to just be another shop, the urgnecy was to sell, what it was didn’t really matter.)

The problem is how easily we are swayed away from what we think we believe or want by bargains or convenience. We may not like what we believe the ethics of a chain coffee shop are, but when we want some coffee NOW, and it saves us an extra 47 metres of walking, we go in anyway. We shrug. We know we could have tried harder, but hell, how many sacrifices do you want. It is a bit drizzly. We love the idea of suppliers who happily pay tax, and we have been angry all morning after reading something in The Independent about tax avoidance, but nowhere else has that Octonauts back pack and Nathan Filer novel at such a low, low price. My consumer mind is far from guiltless in being swayed by the bright lights of my laptop. It would be one thing if these were necessities, but so many things are just the junky buzz of a quick purchase, then left in cellophane or with spines uncracked, probably until your children start sifting through the detritus of your life, ruing your spendthrift ways as the Co-Op undertaker guides them through the latest wicker caskets. 

Reading of the fall in the number of independent bookshops in the newspaper, I was glad to see pronouncements from Morag Watkins of Chorleywood bookshop, the Metroland bookshop of my youth. While the Chesham one where I bought my first horror book (Horror Movies by Alan Frank) and my first Orwell (An Age Like This) has gone, Chorleywood Bookshop, where I bought my Terrance Dicks’ Doctor Who books and my first Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker) is still selling. 

I am probably of a bygone age and I should wake up and smell the Kindle, but the joy of blistered fingers from flicking through records and the delight of eyeing up bookshelves (something approaching a paper pecadillo) is something I will pay more for. That extra cash is more than recouped from the joy of browsing.

I am back off on tour with a new show – Three cinemas – Sheffield, Chorley and Nottingham, One Bookshop – and many delightful venues across the UK, from Norwich to Swansea, Huddersfield to Edinburgh – details HERE

Cosmic Genome updates include more Alice Roberts, Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins, plus these puppet idiots HERE

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5 Responses to These Spectacles Were Made for Browsing

  1. Great blog – I can’t think of anyone who so vividly declares his love of books and 2nd hand bookstores. It used to be my greatest joy when I lived in Oz, where I am now they simply don’t exist. Nothing, nada, not a bookstore of any kindle…

  2. I loved Selectadisc when I lived in London too, but also remember the early lure of Yahoo Auctions (before even Ebay) for picking up knockdown priced N64 games. I still wander into book shops in the hope of finding a full set of Jennings books (for which the internet seems sadly silent), but I am still a slave to Ebay (recently found those Beijing 2008 mascots for a decent price and completed the TOPPS Star Wars card collection). Both have their place, but I completely agree that Ebay has lost the early vibe of bric-a-brac – sort of like the difference between second-hand clothes and “retro” that happened in Camden Lock market in the 1990s

  3. Whether you think King Canute was an idiot for imagining he could turn back the tide, or a wise king showing his court that the tide cannot be turned back by temporal power, the net effect is the same. Bookshops are toast.

  4. john matthews says:

    Amazon has created the self published market. There are far more authors now than pre internet days where you would have to impress a lot of suits to get a book out.
    Its made the niche market possible.

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