Like many of us, I can’t resist searching through a pile of second-hand books whether they’re in a shop, car boot sale or just an old cardboard box in a street market. If I want a modern paperback I will go to our local bookseller and buy new but when it comes to second-hand, it is non-fiction I’m after – and the older the better. . There is something rather special to holding a book that has been previously owned, and hopefully loved, by someone else. It is even better when you find that they have written inside the cover. Sometimes it is the signature of the author with a personal note added or a birthday greeting from an aunt but it is the name of the unknown owner that really excites me. In those two or three words an imagined picture emerges of the man, woman, girl or boy that was also opening the covers with the same sense of eager anticipation. Over the years I have picked up a number of these books, usually for no more than a couple of pounds and more often just for pence for they are of little real monetary value. Occasionally I have struck lucky: a book on cricket turned out to have been signed by Donald Bradman, the legendary Australian captain, and turned my seventy-five pence purchase into a profit of over ninety pounds within days. More often the book remains on my shelves forever.
My interest in social and family history means that I can never resist carrying out a little research into my purchases. A book on Victorian garden design published in 1861 and presented in 1879 to Duncan Buchanan by the Paisley Florist Society slowly revealed its story. The Paisley Florist Society, the second oldest in the country and founded in 1782 , is still going strong. The fate of Duncan Buchanan’s Barshaw Gardens changed over the years: in 1912 the house and gardens were sold and turned into a public park which is still open to the public. After he won his prize he pencil sketched a delightful view on the back page which, for me, makes the book priceless. Not all books have such a happy story. A G Street wrote Round The Year On The Farm in 1941 and is a calendar of farming life and tasks supplemented with photographs. The signature Edgar Liversedge of Rawmarsh didn’t take a lot of research for in 1914 his mother Emily, in a fit of madness, cut his four younger siblings throats before cutting her own. Before she did so, she sent young Edgar, aged 12, downstairs to wait for his father to return home so that he could tell him what she had done. As it happened she and ten year old Doris survived and Emily found guilty of murder was sent to a mental home for life. How did Doris and Edgar fare after such a terrible ordeal? One can only hope that Edgar, who had perhaps turned to farming, found solace in nature and the great outdoors.
Now, when I open my A G Street I find I am not only reading a charming record of the time of farming with horses but also a record of the sadness of the book’s owner. This is, I’m glad to say, an exception for most second-hand books have a happy hidden story just waiting to be uncovered.