On sunday I had to make good on an offer to help out at a bric a brac sale. It was being held in the the local masonic lodge, an imposing brown sandstone building with pillars flanking the door and a pair of dividers carved into the masonry above it. Inside, the grandeur has faded and the whole place looks scuffed and drab although the oak panelling, brass fittings and black and white floor tiles must have looked very impressive once. Interestingly the main hall has not a single window.
This morning tables line its walls, weighed down with crockery, dusty glassware, old handbags and brollies, shoes, board games, DVDs and books. The term bric a brac feels very apt, its redolent of of marginal utility and value. Tittle tattle, fiddle faddle, chitter chatter.
Martha, the organiser, puts me on the book table on which sits several tattered boxes of books, many of them old, torn and dusty. They are crammed in any old how and before we officially open the doors I have to try and sort them into some order. It makes me feel like Andy Dufrain in the Shawshank prison library, but he had all the time in the world whereas I only have half an hour before the doors are due to open at 11.00am.
Despite the fact that there are people who have been waiting outside in the rain there is no urgency amongst our first customers, just a sense of optimism as they float between the tables. Maybe they’re looking for a lamp for the hall or the DVD of Dirty Dancing to replace their worn out and redundant video copy. Maybe a coffee pot just old enough to be retro or perhaps a much loved board game from childhood; ‘When I was a kid we loved playing Mousetrap...’
My first customer approaches the table, a heavyset man in his sixties.
‘Have you get any Westerns?’ I don’t, but perhaps here is an opportunity for him to broaden his reading tastes.
‘If you like killings and gunfights, I’ve got a couple of Andy McNabs,’ I offer, remembering Martha’s instructions to smile, but he moves on, unimpressed.
Amongst the books are one or two pleasant surprises but there is little surprise in finding Fifty Shades of Grey, given that there are approximately two hundred books on the table it was almost a mathematical certainty. But even though this is the first copy I’ve actually held, I don’t open it, in fact I lose interest halfway through the back cover.
Then I find Clan of the Cave Bear, an old favourite that did the rounds of all my school friends. This copy does not have convenient dog ears to highlight the sex scenes and I can’t remember where they are now but for a moment I’m lost in happy memories.
‘I’m looking for historical romance,’ says a rain soaked, woman with a baseball cap.
I’m tempted to suggest Clan of the Cave Bear but I’m going to keep it instead, I never got round to reading the whole thing and there’s a better alternative to hand. Its a fairly recent looking paperback but with a cover illustration featuring a red-coated soldier arm in arm with a woman holding a parasol, it reminds me of the old Quality Street tins. She buys it for for fifty pence.
A man tells me his wife likes Jilly Cooper. I’m not familiar with her work and I don’t have any of it here but I did once hear it described as ‘juicy’. I offer him ‘Fifty Shades’ but he looks at me as if I’ve farted and I realise that neither of us will ever read this book albeit for entirely different reasons. Instead I offer him ‘The Family’ by Martina Cole. I read it myself after my wife bought it as a holiday read a year ago but this one is a very handsome hardbacked version.
‘It kept me guessing right til the end,’ I am able to truthfully attest. He nods and buys it. In fact it kept me guessing for some time after that, and as I hand it over I’m still trying to figure out how these three hundred pages of cliche and inconsistency can have sold so many copies. On the other hand it has only taken me twenty seconds to sell this one which makes me think about the importance readers place on genre.
As the day wears on I manage to sell a few more books, and I can see that at other tables steady progress has been made. Not bad considering that this was event was advertised by putting up posters in the high street and flyers through doors. As a form of advertising its as ancient as the town crier but it certainly works because a large collection of previously unwanted items have been exchanged for money in a series of face to face transactions.
What’s more, several hundred people have visited this dingy hall in a quiet back street on a wet Saturday afternoon, and all without the aid of the internet. However, If we had used the full array of social media it could have been significantly bigger. In fact, if we’d then allied this to an online selling platform we could have extended our reach much further. I’d have been in with a chance of shifting all the books on this table.
But even if I had, I wouldn't have experienced what I did today; placing printed words in the hands of another person and watching them make their decision right there and then. But its not the way to sell a million copies of any book, least of all my own.
Towards the end I notice Martha looking sadly at a large number of items on one of the other tables. Mismatched china stained with tea, sturdy earthenware cups and an assortment of brightly coloured coffee mugs ‘Breaktime’, ‘World’s Greatest Dad’, ‘Nescafe’.
‘Looks like we’re going to have to chuck it all out she says sadly, glancing up at the clock. We have to vacate the hall by 4. 00pm prompt and have been expressly told not to use the big trash bins at the back of the building. But the Lodge kitchen has an even bigger collection of random crockery and with a bit of persuasion I manage to squeeze all ours in amongst it - I doubt if anyone will notice.