Books and Friendship

Argus title : Let yourself absorb the magic of books

My friend James Procter and I met this week to celebrate the opening of Brighton’s wonderful new library, this year’s national book week and 3 decades of friendship.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve known James for 30 years. His name won’t mean anything to most people, however many will recognise it – no doubt a few with irritation, but many more with respect, great affection and some nostalgia.

James was known to generations of students who eked out their grants at the Sussex University Bookshop. He was famous for three things, his friendliness, his humorous eccentricity and his profound love of books. He worked there for years.

After a brief spell in the Civil Service, James started working, in 1972, as a Receiving Clerk at the Sussex Bookshop. He transferred to the shop floor in 1975, and that was when I met him. It was my first year at the university.

I was lonely and a bit adrift. James welcomed me, learned my name, my age, what course I was on and who my tutors were. He chatted, helped me to find the books I needed, teased me without malice and encouraged me in what I did. Above all he made me, and others, laugh.

In turns mannered and gracious, puckish and mischievous, he would saunter through the shop, talking about books and advising and encouraging students. Like some latter-day 18th century gentleman, he treated conversation as an art form.

He knew what people would like to read, because he so closely observed them. Few people I have met combine quite such an interest in the very human foibles of ordinary people with so deep a desire for wisdom.

In the days before Lesbian and Gay Pride had become established, James was uncompromising in his resistance to homophobia. With humour and charm he claimed his right to respect.

I realised that in a strange way, he reminded me of staff in the library I’d used as a child. They too were eccentrics, who seemed to have absorbed something of the magic of the books around them. I used to feel very safe in Durban’s children’s library. I’d walk through the tall wooden stacks, smelling the musty reek of old books, and feel I was being embraced.

James’ comment is apposite “Libraries focus on you. But at the same time they take you outside yourself into someone else’s creativity. They surround you with imagination.” With simplicity and complete sincerity he said “Books are the bread of life.”

After I graduated I lost touch with James. But later I went back to the university. Each time I returned James was there – as much of a fixture in the university as any lecturer or professor.

While others developed careers, climbed the ranks of academia, published books and gained professorships, James appeared static. And yet he was not. He grew during that time. And he grew, as so many other people have done, because of books. He read widely, soaked up ideas and discussed them with whoever he could.

Over the years, as he conscientiously serviced other people’s academic development, he was quietly educating himself, at home, in bookshops and, crucially, in libraries. Each time I met him he had grown in confidence.

Inevitably, he outgrew the campus bookshop. He left, but it was unthinkable that he would work away from his beloved books. After a gap of several years I met him again at Brighton Bookshops & Sussex Stationers, one of the friendliest of community based booksellers.

He’d lost none of his capacity to ‘work’ his customer-audience. As one amused ‘regular’ was heard to say “Every shop should have a James”.

Nothing had changed about his friendliness, his life-affirming interest in others and his commitment to conversation. However, he had developed a wonderful capacity to recommend possible reading matter to customers of all ages and types.

My daughter is a loyal customer of Sussex Stationers in Brighton’s East Street. It’s her home from home. She likes the national book shops, but they are large and impersonal and no one remembers you or what you like to read.

It’s different in smaller bookshops “Hold on” she says, as we pass by the East Street store “I just want to see if my friend is there. She’ll tell me if that book I want is in”.

Her “friend” is the smiling manager, whose name she does not even know. It is she who holds the precious information my daughter requires about when Lemony Snicket, Jacqueline Wilson, Phillip Pullman, JK Rowling or Meg Cabot are next to publish. Like James she remembers my daughter, chats to her, encourages her to read and commiserates when books are published late.

My daughter is used to staff who show an interest in what she reads. There’s a wonderful librarian at her school. But she is stunned by James. “Every time I go there he persuades me to buy a book” she complained last week, laughing, “I can’t afford it”. “You don’t need to” I replied “We’ll go to the library when you don’t have money”

We’ve been looking forward so much to the opening of the new library. We’ve made our plans. We’ll be going down every Saturday morning to change our books and choose a batch for the week ahead. Once in a while we’ll choose some CDs, videos and DVDs.

Then we’ll go and have tea and a bun and read our books till it’s time to go. We’ll buy fresh flowers and bread on the way back – and that’ll be us set up for the weekend. A very civilised way to end the week.

That’s the thing about libraries. They are so civilised. They are repositories of wisdom and all that is finest about human beings. And they are accessible in a way that no book shop can ever be.

No one is excluded. They may be old gentlemen with music scores, lads obsessing about computers, Gay men or young mothers in reading groups, girls buried in Jacqueline Wilson’s latest or old ladies surreptitiously marking the backs of romantic novels to remind themselves which they’ve read. All are welcome.

I’ve worked in several libraries. I loved being surrounded by books and the sense of community that that permeates such places. I loved the sense that I and others could explore new worlds, while not making a buck of profit for ourselves or anyone else.

In particular, I like the atmosphere of safety and good order. Hove’s old library has it in spadefuls and I admire the people who’ve fought to keep it open.

Brighton’s wonderful new library may be very modern, but in essentials is little different from the best of old libraries. It may be difficult to know where the fiction shelves begin and end, the queuing system may be non-existent, and they may have abolished the date stamp (big mistake), but it’s welcoming and comfortable. It’s light and airy and a dozens of tables and chairs invite you to rest and read.

Newspapers and journals are easily to hand and even the ‘Reserved Items’ shelves are outside the staff area. I suspect a number of items are likely to go missing.

I have a confession to make. When I was first a student in South Africa, I was young and impoverished. I had for a while forgotten what libraries meant to me. I took a library book without getting it stamped. I remember it was John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”.

A tutor saw it on my bookshelf. He said “Libraries are for everyone. They’re also the only way that people on low incomes can get hold of free books. If you steal them, you steal from us all, but especially from them.”

I hadn’t thought of it as stealing – just uncontrolled ‘borrowing’. Ashamed, I put the book back. And never again forgot that books are treasure.

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