For an atheist, I’ve been a religious attendee of the Edinburgh Christian Aid Booksale from 2008 to the present day, and this year’s sale (still in action as I write this – it runs for a week) is the first after a necessary interregnum because of something called ‘Covid’. This sale is an experiential necessity – there’s no-way of describing it to the lay-person who has never queued for an hour in advance of the opening time and then charged inside like an antiquarian berserker.
It’s not for the faint hearted. Basically, it’s the bibliophilic equivalent of the Pamplona bull-run. People queue outside the very stately, pilastered St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church on George Street in a very civilised manner. I’m not sure if people camp out in advance, but I’ve been there a hour in advance and still have been a 100 yard race away from the door. By 9:45 the queue has usually long snaked behind the edge of George Street and out of view. One of my pet peeves is how known bookdealers walk up and down the queue looking for a familiar face to tag on to. Once a conversation is started, you legitimately jumped the queue. This practice is prevalent and, in my opinion, ungodly.
As soon as the bells ring at 10am, the queue gives way like a hypnagogic jerk and we’re off. All previous semblance of civilisation and decorum quickly fades. The pace quickens and it’s suddenly everyone for themselves – ‘sauve qui peut’ should be the motto of the fair. As someone who knows their books you know that this is the golden hour and everything will be snapped up in this time – if only you’d mastered the art of bilocation!
I focus on the Scottish section first, which is the first section you encounter and many people often over-look. It’s a rookie error to look first at either the ‘specials’ or ‘first edition’ section as generally these books have been intensively researched and often overegged in their pricing. Go to the general sections instead and then loop back. What’s meant for you won’t go by you. This year as soon as I walked in I bagged two lovely copies of Kathleen Jamie’s first collection Black Spiders for £2 and £3 respectively. After 15 years of intensive book hunting, I’d only ever seen (and bought) one other copy of this elusive book.
As I said, this sale is every person for themselves. Anything you do is frowned upon by the douce new-toun Edinburghers who volunteer for the sale (they all deserve a medal in my book, as to what medal that might be, I don’t quite know). I think service to this book fair should be one of the bedrock tests of fidelity to the church, as I couldn’t possibly tolerate of of Jock Tamson’s bairns this free-for-all attracts.
When I said ‘not for the faint of heart’ I meant it. I began as a wet-behind-the-ears book collector and was staggered by the blatant ill-manners, some of them bordering on the atavistic. I’m pathologically scared of being considered impolite, so often find myself apologising or waiting forever for a space to browse to become available. This is when enantiodromia strikes and you begin to join in with the herd mentality. I was at the poetry section – poetry being one of the most well-known belligerent genres there is – when I was scanning my eyes around the cartons (at this fair all the books come in cardboard cartons). In the past, looking at this cartons, I’ve had people violently shove me out of the way. This time, I was scanning the carton right in front of me (nothing there) so turned my gaze to the one beside me and I instantly saw something I liked, an early collection by Ruthven Todd. I plucked it out and added it to my teetering cairn of books. The man who happened to be standing in front of this carton began to tear strips off me for being unaccountably rude. I (strongly) suspect that he came to the sale with this prejudice in mind – that everyone (other than himself) were swinish mercenaries. The fact that my choice clearly evidence my knowledge in the field did not sit well with him and I feel his belligerence was actually envy (quite common at the ‘Christian’ Aid Booksale).
So, I carry on browsing, this is perhaps one of the most intense first days I’ve been to, I just can’t budge at all, I feel like I’m crowd surfing in a much less glamourous fashion. My hands are shaking because I feel like I was just completely attacked for no reason and all around me I see people behaving in a completely selfish manner. And people wonder why I’m a mistanthrope!
I find myself at the translation section, buy a few signed Yevtushenko editions and then I overhear my previous plaintiff loudly complaining about me again to the erstwhile accountant of the Scottish Poetry Library, Eric Wishhart. As I lean across I sarcastically apologise for my ‘supremely churlish behaviour’ to which Wishhart laughs, proving the pettiness of the whole thing. But my accuser goes on and says I’m symptomatic of the whole decline in manners in society! Charming! A truism about people in glass houses somehow comes into my head….