THIS week I’ve been hugely enjoying two fascinating new books about, well, books.

Nicholas Royle’s wonderful White Spines: Confessions of A Book Collector describes his ongoing quest to collect paperbacks published by literary imprint Picador from the 1970s through to the end of the 1990s, when the books were marked by the same distinctive white spine and logo.

Rick Gekoski’s captivating Guarded by Dragons, meanwhile, recounts his own times as a book trader and dealer. Among the books to have passed through his hands are Sylvia Plath’s copy of The Great Gatsby (which Ted Hughes asked for back) and John Kennedy Toole’s edition of Finnegan’s Wake (his notes finish on page 80, like me never quite finishing Joyce’s novel!)

Royle and Gekoski transport the reader into the intriguing world of the second-hand book trade, and capture the assorted stories and characters it contains.

Royle recalls his transformative visit to Skoob Books in London in Autumn 1982, who shelved books by the same publisher together.

There was a Penguin section, complete with orange spines, and a Picador one, gleaming in white.

Since then, Royle has built up his collection. When I caught up with him earlier in the week, he described the process as an ‘organic’ delve into every second-hand bookshop he passes: ‘that’s what it is about, rather than ticking items off a list.’ I asked him why he collected.

‘I like things that are the same but different, things that exist in series,’ he explained.

He compared Picador to jazz CDs from ECM or DVDs from Artificial Eye: ‘What they all have in common is the brand in each case is a guarantee of quality.’

Both White Spines and Guarded by Dragons are a skilful blend of memoir and literary insight. Who knew, for example, that Graham Swift’s Last Orders is the Picador book most commonly found in second-hand shops? Or that Sticky Stuff Remover is the go-to for getting sticker residue off a cover?

Royle and Gekoski also touch on the sometimes-controversial role of Oxfam in the second-hand trade.

‘When one of these opens in a village or small town’, Gekoski argues, ‘within two years the local second-hand bookshop will have closed.’

Royle also notes the potential threat, but says that there is the ‘compelling argument’ that ‘if you buy a book from Oxfam you are joining the fight against poverty.’

From his own travels, he knows, too, how different each branch can be: ‘The ones that are really well managed are indistinguishable from non-charity second-hand bookshops.’

The bigger threat to second-hand bookshops, as with much in publishing, comes from online instead. But for all the Internet’s advantages, nothing beats an afternoon’s browse among carefully curated shelves.

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