Kent stations are increasingly stripped of all services. Porters disappeared 60 years ago, once more passengers realised the advantages of wheely suitcases. Left luggage got abolished after national terrorism episodes. Newsagents can’t get enough business, now most people get their news via their phones. Even tea and sandwich services, so famous in the days when the British Rail sandwich was mocked even by its consumers, has disappeared from station platforms with many preferring to carry their own plastic bottle plus a wrapped sandwich bought in the local supermarket.
Second-hand bookshop at Whitstable
As a result, some stations have excess room that they can rent out for other purposes. One of these, at Whitstable station, is rented by Michael and his wife who run a second-hand bookshop in a room off the London platform.
I love the opportunity to peruse the shelves there while I wait for a train. I browse nostalgically through the children’s section which contains a number of the old Ladybird Nature series: insects, wildflowers, birds. All very clearly illustrated in that unforgettable style. I calculate whether it would be useful to buy some for grandchildren. But then I recall how much technology has advanced. I can help them identify plants in the field far more quickly using my phone app.
I browse through adult sections: biography, politics, philosophy, religion, history, poetry, all neatly classified. I ask Michael whether certain topics sell better than others. He says he no longer wants to say. If he says one topic is not selling – say, politics, – he suddenly gets a run on that shelf! He is very experienced in the book trade, having previously run a second-hand bookshop in the main street of Whitstable. The outlet in the station is a way of gradually disposing of the old stock.
All that glisters is not gold
There are certain topics that I would give a miss in a second-hand bookshop, such as science and technology, which has moved on so swiftly in my lifetime that most books are outdated. Encyclopaedias of my childhood had only black and white pictures. Astronomy was mostly confined to the solar system. Accounts of other countries were within the framework of the British Empire, and of other cultures within a racist hierarchy.
What about language learning? Even simple tourist phrasebooks reflect the era in which they were made. We have moved on a bit since “la plume de ma tante,” as even the aunt would be more likely to be texting on the phone than using her pen. But even phrase books of the 1990s contain outdated hotel phrases, concerning cheques or written letters of booking, rather than the e-booking of today, and the guest more concerned about wi-fi access and charger plugs.
Age brings its rewards
However, I was delighted to spot a book from 1982 that was too expensive for me to buy then, as a young mother, but now at the second-hand price of £4 was within my means. So, I bought “A Women’s Work is never done: a history of housework in the British Isles, 1650-1950” by Caroline Davidson.
It is a delightful book to browse through in the evening, comfortable in a house with all the mod cons, contrasting that to the ardours of the chores of yesteryear.
- Heating – carrying all those coals and cleaning the fireplace.
- Laundry – boiling the copper and taking a whole day or more to do the family wash, having to dry clothes indoors draped around the fireplace.
- Cooking – scrubbing all those copper pots blackened on the fireplace.
- Lighting – carrying candles or lamps up and down stairs, with all the dangers of tripping in those voluminous long skirts.
It has lots of contemporary illustrations too, although all in black and white. Such books provide good background knowledge to trips to National Trust properties where old kitchens are on display.
So happy together
My train was about to arrive. So, I hastily paid for the book and departed. Other people on the train were talking into their phones or reading from them. But I was happy with my old book. What a good idea to sell old books on a station platform!