The other morning I went to collect a parcel from a depot. An item of knitwear. It was a chore I did not much resent, for time was on my side and it meant a relatively untaxing stroll through one of Manchester’s tattier and more interesting corners, the Baring Street industrial park, near Piccadilly Station. It’s a seedy and dilapidated zone – unpretty signs, cracked brickwork, soiled concrete, and intimidating gates of rusty, corrugated iron. But among the grimy backstreets and rubble-strewn ginnels there are functioning businesses. Some of the buildings look abandoned, the most notable being of course the old Mayfield Station, a quite impressive ediface of decay and neglect which I did not have the inclination to inspect. The Medlock, usually no more than a brown, feculent, niggly dribble of a river, has been gorging on rain and actually looks quite potent in its own insignificant way. A strange, crudely-painted emblem adorns the bridge over the river. Two creatures, one cream, the other a rather sickly blue pose and prance next to a dull shield. There is graffiti – RZ has been doing the rounds – and a leather jacket lies in the gutter. Some wag has modified the sign for Berry St. You can glimpse this not-quite-destroyed world from platform 14 of Picaddilly Station. It is tucked behind the clean, curved mass of the Macdonald Hotel, where hen parties, business men and football fans stay. Next time you’re up there, on platform 14, waiting for your train to Blackpool or Horton Parkway or Liverpool Lime Street, take a look at the world outside, at those dirty, littered streets, just beyound the confines of your daily business. They are unloved streets, perhaps even unwelcoming for the right kind of visitor, but they are not with a certain charm. The old warehouses are attractive. The peeling paint and moss-furred pipes are pleasing on the eye. Perhaps my view that morning was coloured by the excitement of collecting a package. The jumper was too small by the way.
This afternoon, after an uninspired but tolerably energetic stint in the gym, I wandered over to the bookseller on Oxford Road. I’d seen the tables being set up earlier, just outside All Saints Park, as I ate an overripe banana on my way to the gym. The thought of all those books, musty and foxed, sustained me as I cycled grimly in front of a television screen busy with growling rappers and sneering divas. Soon, I told myself, this bodily torment will end. Soon I will be checking the condition of bindings and dust-jackets, picking out obscure Pelicans and Penguins for closer inspection.
Freed from the bright purgatory of kettlebell and rowing-machine, I ambled over to the tables. There were two long rows today – a chance for some proper post-gym browsing. You never know what you might find on these tables. It’s a casino of the mind. There was a big selection of communist literature, as there often is, from Trotsky’s provocative analysis of Swedish volleyball to Lenin’s thoughts on contemporary millinery. None of it has sold for weeks, perhaps in protest at the capitalist system. There was another table piled with more insidious red propaganda – big, shiny hardbacks about or ‘by’ such luminaries as Ferguson, Beckham, Ferdinand, Butt. These profound tomes inspired such awe in passers-by that no one stopped to investigate. Alex and Eric received far less fondling than did Leon and Karl.
For me, it wasn’t a vintage browsing session. But an hour or two spent nosing through strange books among sometimes strange people is never wasted. I dabbled with a bit of Henry James – I’ll try anything on a Sunday – but halfway through the opening sentence I felt the first faint throbs of a migraine. There’s usually a good stock of luridly-dressed sci-fi – I was drawn to Harry Harrison’s No More Room. In the end I came away with an interesting and sharply-designed Pelican paperback on mental asylums, which has certainly added cheer to a chilly Sunday afternoon.
If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on secondhand bookshops, my essay Just Browsing: An Ode to the Second-Hand Bookshop can be found at Litro.