I run a memoir reading group at a local library and we meet once a month. My walking route to the library takes me past six charity shops. Last Monday, in the window of one, I spotted the Hannah Kent novel Burial Rites. At £2 for the hardback version I couldn’t walk by. Especially after hearing Hannah read an extract from her book last week at the Royal Festival Hall. She told us how her idea for the story came after spending a year in Iceland as a seventeen year old. It’s a handsome edition. Each page has a black rim so collectively the main body of the book looks black – like a stack of mortuary cards. I’m delighted with my purchase. The sun is shining, I’m going to a cathedral for books to discuss life stories with literary types. Life is good.
My journey home takes me past those charity shops again. I stroll in to another charity benefactor and head straight for the book shelves. I like that one selection has already been made – someone chose to buy these books new in the first place. Big book stores can be over whelming. Here we are getting a distilled collection. Someone else’s choices and recommendations. I spot a slim booklet on St Catherine Laboure, “The Saint of Silence”. It sits on of the other books, like a plant for me to find. Unlike all the other books, its not priced. A quick leaf through and I discover St Catherine’s connection to the miraculous medal. I recall a pal telling me of a trip to an ancestral home place where miraculous medals kept turning up in the oddest places. This find is significant for me too. I know it will be useful for a current writing project. It couldn’t be more than 50p. I ask the lady behind the counter. She’s surprised it’s not priced. I wonder aloud if someone left it there to be found and pocketed. As I was about to hand over a 50p coin she barks out £1.50. I wish I’d got my spoke in first but it is a charity shop after all so I offer her a pound coin. She repeats £1.50 and I suggest she’s over-pricing. The hardbacks in this store sell for £1.50. i got a very current hardback book next door for two pounds a couple of hours ago. I don’t want to give her £1.50. Though of course it is worth more than that to me. Before parting with my money I tell her I really begrudge handing over the coins as it’s a pamphlet, not a book and I could easily and with clear conscience have pocketed it. Finders keepers. I share my theory that it probably was used as someone’s bookmark at any rate. But she’s not budging. She just repeats £1.50. I feel like appealing to her as one volunteer to another. Cut me some slack. I’ve just done my public duty as a volunteer reading group facilitator. She’s behind the counter doing hers but PISSING ME OFF.
I think about reading the book on the spot – it will only take me 5 minutes or photographing the relevant pages on my iphone but I know I need to have it. So with a sour face and heavy heart I hand over the money.
I leave the store and feel such RAGE. As well as fleecing me she has tainted my purchase. That makes me feel even more vexed. I continue to walk up the street on this beautiful sunny morning muttering B***h, B***h, B***h, B***h.
A couple of days later I’m in another charity store when I spot yet again an “orphan” book. It’s not with the others whose binds are neatly facing outwards. It’s sitting on top begging to be chosen. Waiting for me? It looks older than its years. The dust jacket is slightly battered and old fashioned yet I find it was printed only two decades ago. “Tales from Old Ireland”. I take it to the counter and the lady asks me for a pound which I happily hand over. Only later at home do I notice a tiny sticker with £3.99 on it. The shop assistant had gone with the pencil mark on the first page. This book has had a few previous lives. Though my rage had abated, this purchase felt like some sort of divine restitution. Quits.