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On Buying Old Books
by [?]

For the buying of books, it is the cheaper shops where I most often prowl. There is in London a district around Charing Cross Road where almost every shop has books for sale. There is a continuous rack along the sidewalk, each title beckoning for your attention. You recall the class of street-readers of whom Charles Lamb wrote–“poor gentry, who, not having wherewithal to buy or hire a book, filch a little learning at the open stalls.” It was on some such street that these folk practiced their innocent larceny. If one shopkeeper frowned at the diligence with which they read “Clarissa,” they would continue her distressing adventures across the way. By a lingering progress up the street, “Sir Charles Grandison” might be nibbled down–by such as had the stomach–without the outlay of a single penny. As for Gibbon and the bulbous historians, though a whole perusal would outlast the summer and stretch to the colder months, yet with patience they could be got through. However, before the end was even a hasty reader whose eye was nimble on the would be blowing on his nails and pulling his tails between him and the November wind.

But the habit of reading at the open stalls was not only with the poor. You will remember that Mr. Brownlow was addicted. Really, had not the Artful Dodger stolen his pocket handkerchief as he was thus engaged upon his book, the whole history of Oliver Twist must have been quite different. And Pepys himself, Samuel Pepys, F.R.S., was guilty. “To Paul’s Church Yard,” he writes, “and there looked upon the second part of Hudibras, which I buy not, but borrow to read.” Such parsimony is the curse of authors. To thumb a volume cheaply around a neighborhood is what keeps them in their garrets. It is a less offence to steal peanuts from a stand. Also, it is recorded in the life of Beau Nash that the persons of fashion of his time, to pass a tedious morning “did divert themselves with reading in the booksellers’ shops.” We may conceive Mr. Fanciful Fopling in the sleepy blink of those early hours before the pleasures of the day have made a start, inquiring between his yawns what latest novels have come down from London, or whether a new part of “Pamela” is offered yet. If the post be in, he will prop himself against the shelf and–unless he glaze and nod–he will read cheaply for an hour. Or my Lady Betty, having taken the waters in the pump-room and lent her ear to such gossip as is abroad so early, is now handed to her chair and goes round by Gregory’s to read a bit. She is flounced to the width of the passage. Indeed, until the fashion shall abate, those more solid authors that are set up in the rear of the shop, must remain during her visits in general neglect. Though she hold herself against the shelf and tilt her hoops, it would not be possible to pass. She is absorbed in a book of the softer sort, and she flips its pages against her lap-dog’s nose.

But now behold the student coming up the street! He is clad in shining black. He is thin of shank as becomes a scholar. He sags with knowledge. He hungers after wisdom. He comes opposite the bookshop. It is but coquetry that his eyes seek the window of the tobacconist. His heart, you may be sure, looks through the buttons at his back. At last he turns. He pauses on the curb. Now desire has clutched him. He jiggles his trousered shillings. He treads the gutter. He squints upon the rack. He lights upon a treasure. He plucks it forth. He is unresolved whether to buy it or to spend the extra shilling on his dinner. Now all you cooks together, to save your business, rattle your pans to rouse him! If within these ancient buildings there are onions ready peeled–quick!–throw them in the skillet that the whiff may come beneath his nose! Chance trembles and casts its vote–eenie meenie–down goes the shilling–he has bought the book. Tonight he will spread it beneath his candle. Feet may beat a snare of pleasure on the pavement, glad cries may pipe across the darkness, a fiddle may scratch its invitation–all the rumbling notes of midnight traffic will tap in vain their summons upon his window.