Being a Scot I like a bargain, I also need at least five books on my bedside table or I begin to feel insecure. Putting these two things together means I have always been an avid fan of second hand bookshops.
There is an atmosphere about a second hand bookshop, something to do with the books having personality or as Virginia Woolf puts it “Second hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”
In Cayman all the wild books come home to roost in the Humane Society Book Loft, and those of us who are new to Cayman do not realise how lucky we are to have it.
Before 1998 there was no second hand bookshop here, though if you were going for your shopping at Kirks you could stop off at Jo and Penny Horner’s book tent outside the Supermarket.
The Horners sold their used books and donated the money they made to the Cayman Islands Humane Society. When they left the island they gave all their books, a roomful, to the Humane Society.
That was when the Humane Society came up with the idea of creating a bookshop. They went on to buy the current building in May 1997 and after renovations the Book Loft opened on May 2 1998
Barbara Moffett recalls those fledgling days. “We had one room for fiction and one for nonfiction. The fiction shelves filled up quickly but nonfiction was a bit slower. But the book shop took off and a few years later we had so many books coming in that we had to expand and we turned an exterior walkway into a suspense fiction room.”
The book minders
All the volunteers at the shop are conscious that they have a dual role, as book tenders, but also they never forget the shop’s primary purpose is to raise money for the work of the Humane Society. As Kendy Steeves, the current manager, points out, “the thing is this is not any second hand book shop, we know how important it is to run it as a business and that every book we sell the money goes towards dog food and vet bills.”
But at the same time all the volunteers love books and they need to because the shop does take some organisation. There are piles and piles of books to sort through. The ones on the shelves are just the peak of the book mountain; there are books through in a back room, books in boxes and books in a container outside the shop. Bonnie Briggs has been helping out in the shop since 1998 and there’s not much she doesn’t know about how the shop works and about its customers.
Does Bonnie get annoyed when people mess up their alphabetically ordered shelves? I think in my question she hears the guilty tone of a surreptitious shover of books back in places they clearly do not belong. A tolerant Bonnie says she finds it puzzling rather than annoying. “You do have to be always rearranging the books because people put them back in the wrong place. It can get a bit puzzling when you find a romance in the middle of suspense and murder.”
All the volunteers nod knowingly when asked what genre is their best seller, it seems in Cayman we all crave romance or alternatively to be frightened out of our wits but romance wins as Bonnie observes “we almost can’t keep romantic novels on the shelves.”
Now many second-hand booksellers have a dream that one day a rare first edition will pass through their hands, though that has not come to pass at the Book Loft, the ladies are astute enough to know that their old book section has the potential to raise a few dollars more than the average romance. Bonnie checks ones that look promising when they come in and browses websites to evaluate a good price for them. Sometimes a book has value because of its speciality nature rather than its age. For instance a collection on the history of the American civil war raised two hundred dollars as Barbara knew someone on island who was a civil war buff.
Sometimes the old books are intriguing because of what they tell you about certain times. A 1930s book on housekeeping can tell you more about the role of women in those times than any socio economic thesis.
Kerrie says that the books might not always be valuable but they still come across gems, like the 1930s cook book that had come in the previous week and was immediately snapped up.
The customers are a general cross section of the public and being Cayman, there are all nationalities which means the shop stocks books in all different languages.
Janet Yates, another volunteer says, “people are amazed when they come in and see the amount and the variety. We get visitors who come in too. There was a couple from Newfoundland recently and they were delighted because they managed to find and buy a book about Newfoundland!”
If you are looking for a specific author or book title its no problem, you can record your requests and they will keep an eye out for it coming in. Currently topping the most requested list are the Twilight books and the inevitable Harry Potter. Of course some people will come in with only a book title and no author, but the ladies are sorting that one out too by getting internet access so that they can find out the author there and then and whether they stock it. With some authors it is not unusual for them to have four or five books of the same title in stock.
Which begs the question with all these books how do they decide when it’s time for a book to go? The ladies are a bit shocked that I even suggest a cull of the books. They have plans for all the books when they must fly the Book Loft. Some are sent to the new prison library; others go to schools or the charity shops. Books do not get removed just because they seem to be around the shelves too long: because it might have been “borrowed” the ladies have trained their customers well and the books are constantly being brought back and off they go again.
Currently the Book Loft is featuring special promotions. This week it is cookery books. Kendy is a collector of cookery books and she believes they have some of the best here, “they are a great buy here because we have such a variety. They are a reflection of all the different nationalities on the island so you can find have great fun experimenting with recipes from a different culture.”
If you have not already discovered the Book Loft and you love books, go, don’t be fussy because they are not new, firstly they are cheap and on a more mystical level, second hand books resonate with their own history and thirdly you might just find that book you have been searching for like Janet did. “I was searching for a copy of Dr Zhivago and one came in. It was a very old copy indeed and I wondered as I was reading it, how many people had held that book and enjoyed it before me.”
And that’s the power of a second hand book passing from hand to hand, always on the move, giving knowledge and pleasure.