Spending Time in my Ivory Tower


Is it coffee time yet?  Luckily at the charity bookshop where I volunteer once a week, there is no shortage of rounds of tea and coffee.  My friend and I usually take it in turns to make the first round of tea while the other one hoovers and then later, the offers of a hot drink come thick and fast all morning from other volunteer members of the team.  It’s often a good excuse to down tools and have a natter while the tea is ordered, made or delivered but on days like today, the tea is a lifeline and is sipped as an aside, while the work continues uninterrupted.


It must be the spring air and the urge to clean out attics, shelving and long forgotten box rooms.  We always receive boxes and boxes of donated books at this time of year and every year we are taken aback by the sheer quantity of books donated.  One of the subject areas I look after is history and today I had a job on my hands to sort out the newest and most desirable books.  The vast numbers of books that had come in over the weeks since Easter, have now been sorted and priced.  Today I had to take off the shelf any books which had not sold in their six week window of opportunity and put out the newly priced ones, sorting them into their correct categories as I went.  Chatting quietly to myself, I had to decide whether ‘Medieval Europe’ goes in the European section or the Medieval section, let’s see, where have I got space?  Are the stories of children evacuated out of London in World War II, social history or part of the general WWII section?  These were my considerations as I put the books out, trying to make sure that customers can find the books easily.


If you come onto the shop floor, I’ll be the one who is just finishing a phrase, as I stop talking to myself when you come into view.  What you will often find is me, reading the back cover or leafing through a history book, either because it looks interesting or in order to find out which period it covers.  Books focusing on one particular monarch or statesman are the most troublesome. The historian authors always assume that you already know the dates of their pet subjects and hide away in the first chapter any reference to something as obvious as a date!


It is often surprising to find out which books are worth more than the usual £3 – £8.  You would expect it to be the small, hard-backed, boring-looking books with a worthy, plain front cover.  But it can be a rare picture book of WWII German Uniforms, a signed copy of a historical biography or an unusual book about an archaeological dig.


Today in the poetry section I was trying to overcome my own prejudices and to ensure that I gave equal shelf space to Longfellow and Tennyson.  I studied Tennyson at school and he will always be a favourite :

‘ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all’

The ache in those lines from In Memoriam makes them so memorable and feel so true; how could Gray’s Elegy compete? (Comments in defence of Gray in the box below please!).


I will always find space for Hood, Milton, Chaucer and Blake but have to speak sternly to myself to squeeze in Pope, Spenser and Kipling.  Such prejudices are based only around what I am familiar with, not on merit!  I’m sure these other poets are also swooned over by others, in fact I know they are, as the poetry books of all sorts sell well.  But I love to pull open a copy of Paradise Lost and start reading the line about ‘Man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree’.  The shop floor fades into the background, my coffee cools and I even stop talking to myself as I am swallowed up by the verse, like a footprint in dry sand, whose outline is erased by the wind blowing another layer of sand on top.  I am subsumed into the world of poetry and forget the outside world, the needs of others, the carefully allotted times, the cares, the worries.  I have plenty of time to read at home but the need to press on with the classification and sorting in the bookshop, makes the escape somehow more precious and more consuming.


I try to counteract my preferences, to ensure that we have a good range of poetry and luckily I enjoy modern poetry too.  Here I give plenty of shelf space to Matthew Sweeny’s Flying Spring Onion, as well as Wendy Cope, Andrew Motion and Simon Armitage.  Copies of these poets’ books are so popular that they sell quickly and are rarely around for long.  This puts me in the position that I have to read them while I can!  If I want to read Wendy Cope’s Serious Concerns for a giggle or a wry smile, then I have to strike while the iron’s hot and the book is still on the shelf.


That’s how I know that this morning was very busy.  I classified and shelved a vast number of history and poetry books but I didn’t read a single poem.  In terms of productivity it is probably a net gain but I hope that next week I will find time to renew my friendship with a favourite such as Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and spend some time in my ivory tower once again.

Do you like what you’ve read here?  If so, please leave a comment below.