June 30, 2013

The thrill of the book chase

It's easier to buy cricket books online but it's much less memorable than stumbling upon a rare one in a second-hand bookstore

Show me someone who's been collecting cricket books for a long time, and I'll show you someone with a fund of stories about how he (or, occasionally, she) came across such-and-such a book. We've all been there: I once scuttled out of a shop with a copy of one of Ken Barrington's 1960s offerings safely bagged for just a pound or two, as the owner hadn't noticed it had been signed by the author, who sadly had died not long before. And a few years ago my mum spotted a 1968 Wisden in a junk shop, and nabbed it for 50p because, as the proprietor sagely noted, "It's not a new one."

But is this all a thing of the past? The internet has changed the way we live and work. And, down the batting order a bit, it has also had a big effect on the way the sellers of books - both new and second-hand - go about their business. I'm not quite sure why anyone would go into a high-street store and buy a new book at full price these days, when it's pretty certain it will be available somewhere online for a big saving. It's why a lot of bookstores have closed down - and why a lot of the ones that are left have installed comfy cafes, and three-for-two offers, and other gimmicks that the original William Henry Smith or William and Gilbert Foyle wouldn't have thought quite seemly.

It's the same for collectors, of cricket books or whatever. If you wanted a copy of Barrington's Playing it Straight now, you probably wouldn't traipse into 25 second-hand bookshops; you'd look it up on Amazon, or a site like www.bookfinder.com. I've just done that, and there are 25 copies out there, for not much more than the couple of quid I paid, although presumably not signed with a squiggly flourish like mine ("With Best Wishes. Ken Barrington").

It might be easier, but it's much less memorable: in years to come I can't see anyone reminiscing about how they completed their set of Wisden by buying the 1934 edition online, or even remembering how, unless perhaps it was a titanic eBay battle. The thrill of the chase - and the satisfying sense of achievement - is largely lacking.

So is my generation the last that will be able to bore the pants off outsiders by recalling exactly where they picked up rare finds like the life story of Glamorgan's Alan Jones (a converted cinema in Hay-on-Wye), Ian Healy's first autobiography (a post office in suburban Melbourne) or Trevor Chesterfield's biography of Fanie de Villiers (a bookstore near Mumbai's Brabourne Stadium)? It remains fun finding rarities online, and there's still a semblance of romance when the books finally arrive - the parcels from India, exotic brown-paper packages tied up with string, are among my favourite things - but it's not quite the same as Being There.

One of my most memorable book captures wasn't even from the right sport. I was on a driving holiday across the United States when, in the rolling plains of Montana, one of those massive roadside signs the Americans specialise in loomed up in the distance. "100,000 Used Books Of All Kinds", it shouted. The store was about 50 miles away at this point, and the signs were repeated (using slightly larger lettering each time) every ten miles or so. The last one also indicated, in slightly smaller writing, that the shop was actually a fair distance off the main road: "We're not going, are we?" asked my co-driver, already knowing the answer. "They won't have any cricket… " And they didn't. But the Montana Valley Book Store did have a tennis book I'd never seen before (or since), so it was well worth it.

The other thing collectors like to think about in front of a crackling fire - or maybe in front of the latest cracking Wisden - is the Fantasy Phone Call. This is when someone contacts you to say they know an elderly widow who has been left with some strange old yellow books, and can you take them off her hands? There used to be a game called Scruples, in which the players had to work out what they'd do in certain morally testing circumstances, and this always struck me as a good one for that: what would you say if confronted by a load of old Wisdens? Admit they were worth a bundle, or pretend to be doing a favour by handing over a couple of crisp tenners?

Actually, this is the sort of thing that seems to happen to other people. The nearest I came to it was when a plumber was working near one of my bookcases, and noticed the Wisden section. "Ah," he said knowledgeably. "Cricket, isn't it? I was doing a house clearance for an old lady a few weeks ago, and she had some of those little books - she didn't know what to do with 'em."

"Wow," I said, the fantasy flickering momentarily alight. "What happened?"

He thought for a bit: "I think she burned them in the end." Seeing my face drop, he tried to cheer me up: "Never mind, they weren't nice new ones like yours - they were really old... " Having just read about record prices for 19th-century Almanacks, this didn't help.

So yes, in the arcane area of second-hand books the internet is a bit of a spoilsport. Especially as, even if you do get out and about, the chances of finding a bargain are vastly reduced: any bookseller worth his salt will surely check up online if he comes across a rare book. It's hard to imagine anyone now flogging an old Wisden off cheaply just because it's not the latest one.

Still, there are some romantics left among us. Ken Piesse, the Australian sportswriter - nicknamed "The Master", he was just about the last person I ever saw using a portable typewriter in the press box - is also an avid book collector, and deals in them too. Recently he wrote that his long-suffering wife (I suspect all cricket-book collectors' wives are long-suffering!) was surprised when, after a couple of days at a book fair, he was up bright and early next morning to go to a local jumble sale. But he was rewarded by picking up one of Don Bradman's books for $5 - and, when he got it home was excited, in the way only a dyed-in-the-wool collector can be, to discover it had been signed by the Don: "A $5 book was suddenly worth $200."

So maybe there's hope for us collectors - and the second-hand bookshops of the world - after all.

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2013