by John Boland

The first genuine books I ever read – not The Secret Seven, not Biggles Sweeps the Desert, not even The Wind in the Willows, but real books with adult thoughts and feelings – came courtesy of Rathmines public library, where I spent too many evenings of my teenage years. Yet even though a library is a fine and private place,  for real lovers of literature there is nothing to compare with a shop that sells second-hand books, and the first such shop I ever entered was Greene’s on Clare Street, which closes its doors next Friday after 164 years in existence.<ep>

Samuel Beckett, who lived across the street from it above his father’s business premises, frequented it often, as did his mentor James Joyce, and not just when he was waiting for Nora Barnacle to finish her working day at Finn’s Hotel opposite, and I used to imagine, as I was poring over dusty volumes on its stairway shelves, that the ghosts of these men were brushing by me. We wouldn’t, of course, have talked because there’s something about the atmosphere of a second-hand bookshop that invites the willing silence which libraries famously demand – an atmosphere that says that reading is a serious business and that we who are perusing these books are serious people, searching for something with which to provide solace for our solitary hours.<ep>

Part of the pleasure of this quest – a large part, I would say – is its uncertainty. You enter a second-hand bookshop usually having no idea what you are looking for or, indeed, if you are looking for anything at all, and suddenly there on the shelf in front of you is an old Everyman’s Library edition of George Herbert’s poems or Montaigne’s essays and years later you look at these volumes on your own shelves and realise that, for a few pence or a few shillings or a few euro, you discovered in these bookshops writers who were to become your companions for life.<ep>

Or, but this is rare (though it’s the rarity that gives the thrill), you suddenly find yourself face to face with a book you’ve been seeking all your life and you stand for a few seconds with giddy disbelief at your amazing good fortune before hurriedly seizing the treasured object just in case anyone else suddenly snatches it out of your grasp – even though it’s been standing, forlorn and forgotten, on these shelves for months or years. I had that sensation when, after twenty years scouring through bookshops in various cities, I found myself in Los Angeles and happened upon a book that had been my bible as a teenager in Rathmines library – Kenneth Tynan’s 1961 book of theatre reviews, Curtains – now miraculously there before my eyes in mint condition and for a mere ten dollars in this rambling warehouse of a bookstore on the edge of the world.<ep>

Nowadays I can go onto the internet, where this week on the abebooks site I found forty-four other first editions of Tynan’s book at prices ranging from a ridiculous one dollar to a more daunting 167 dollars, but though this is a wonderful online service and I use it regularly, somehow it’s not the same – you don’t experience the delirium of discovery or the feel of the spine of the book or of the smell of its pages or of the whole inimitable ritual of entering the shop, the proprietor nodding at you, the other customers glancing round from their silent reveries at the shelves to size up the demeanour and perhaps the moral character of this newcomer, this  fellow explorer who has decided to embark on the same voyage of discovery.<ep>

I went back to Greene’s last week to say farewell to it and to imagine it soon sharing some Valhalla with Webb’s on the quays and the Dublin Bookshop on Batchelor’s Walk and those other irreplaceable emporiums that no longer exist in this supposedly literary town of ours. While I was there, I browsed among the depleted shelves on the stairs, leafing through old Reprint Society editions of Neville Shute and Nigel Balchin and Elizabeth Jane Howard and all those other writers who, like Greene’s itself, have had their day.<ep>

I finally came across and bought, for a mere €2.50, what I think was the first book I ever purchased in Greene’s, a lovely compendium called The Musical Companion. The scrawl in fountain pen on the flyleaf informed me that it was once the property of Dorothy Beattie, who acquired it at Christmas in 1946. Years later she or her family, for whatever reason, banal or heartbreaking, felt obliged to dispense with it. Was she one of the ghosts I sensed as I walked back down the stairs of Greene’s for the last time?

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