James Leavey's Corner
Book Running Or No Tome Unturned

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Book running or No tome unturned

by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey

Years ago, George Orwell and Dylan Thomas used to earn extra cash from book running in London, selling old books to the capitol's second-hand bookshops.

I got into it 30 years ago by accident when I went to a local jumble sale in London and bought a pile of paperbacks.I kept the ones I liked, sold the rest to a Charing Cross Road bookshop, and found myself ahead by a few quid.The following Saturday I used the extra money to do it again andgot £20 (I was only earning £45 a week, at the time).After that it became a money-making habit.

You can find bargain books in London's boot and garage sales, jumbles, bazaars, garden fetes, charity and junk shops, and the smaller, local second-hand bookshops.For bulk buy, the best places to look are specialist book sales by Amnesty International and other charities, with donations from publishers and private collectors.

North of the river Thames is a good place to hunt, especially Hampstead, Highgate and Camden Town.Labour supporters seem to read more widely than Conservatives.I arm myself with the local paper (which lists jumble and boot sales), plastic carrier bags and lots of small change.With the aid on an A-Z of London, I then work out how long it will take to get from one sale to another, and which ones I will go to first.

Getting to the good sales before the other dealers is vital, as queues of book runners can build up an hour or so in advance.I usually nod at the faces I've got to know over the years.We're all terribly polite, including the extremely short-sighted American professor of German who rummages through piles of books with the aid of a miner's lamp attached to a band round his forehead, peering for bargains with the aid of a huge magnifying glass.A pleasant, well-spoken New Yorker, he gives most of his best finds to his impoverished students at the University of London.

Once inside, there's a race for the books.Using my body to block rivals, I sweep up an armful of paperbacks and good-quality hardbacks and rapidly scan through this pile while others are fighting over the remainder.

I once pulled out 40 books and asked the woman behind the table to put them aside while I looked for more."You'll have a good read tonight," she said.'Somebody will;' I thought, with a liar's smile, as I explained that I was collecting them for my student children (true-ish), bed-bound wife (now ex-) and elderly neighbours (both seriously visually impaired, i.e. blind). 

Jumble and car boot sale prices range from 10p upwards.The book runner's mark-up is at least 500 per cent, usually many times more.Most reasonable second-hand bookshops pay between £1 and £5 for a good paperback.

Any that I can't sell I save for another jumble.Arriving at least an hour before it opens, I 'donate' the junk books and thus get into the hall for a sneak preview.If there's nothing remarkable, I'm off to the next one, leaving the dealers languishing in the queue.

I avoid uncleanable, torn or marked books, and I clean paperback and hard-back covers with tissue and water, rubbing out pencilled prices (if there's still an outline, I add a pound or two and rub it all out again), removing price stickers and Tippexing over inked prices.The trick is to make the goods as presentable as possible.

While every book has had a first edition, and some are valuable, more aren't.New book runners should read the monthly 'Book Collector' magazine (available from most good newsagents), for a general guide to prices.All best sellers are best avoided, as demand for second-hand titles depends on scarcity.And don't buy remaindered books (new books that have been marked down) and try to resell them. I've tried that already.

There are about 100 decent second-hand bookshops in London.Ike Ong, owner of what many believe to be the best, Skoob Books, 10 Brunswick Centre, opposite Russell Square tube, WC1, publishes the invaluable 'Skoob Directory of Secondhand Bookshops in the British Isles', a good investment at £7.99. (

"People new to book running should specialise in a particular subject which they have knowledge about," recommends Ong."The problem is that, unlike Skoob, most bookshops have limited budgets for 'new' stock and don't buy all the time."

Years ago I used to sell books to a shop in Flask Alley, Hampstead.If I saw the woman owner before lunch, she'd grumpily offer the lowest prices anywhere.Then I learned to approach her in the afternoon after she'd had a few drinks, and the payout would increase dramatically.

I once watched a bookshop owner snort a line of cocaine while I was waiting with my bagfuls."You know you'll give me lots more money for these books when you're high," I told him."Never mind," he said."Want some""

When I find rare, unusual books that are worth over £100 (according to 'Book Collector'), I take them to Bloomsbury Book Auctions. General fiction is best sold in Charing Cross Road; Bertram Rota in Covent Garden give good prices for modern first editions.Music & Video Exchange, 56 Notting Hill Gate, will buy everything, for virtually nothing.

And yes, I have found that most of London's second-hand bookshops are smoker-friendly, unlike the new bookshops (many owned by American companies), even those that sell my smoker's guides to London and Scotland.If in doubt, look for the ashtrays and ask for titles about 'London - the Big Smoke.'

Copyright James Leavey, 2001. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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