Alexander Ewing makes another plea for better bookshops

Unlike the average academic journal article, which few read and fewer bother to comment on (or at least in my case), I’m always pleasantly surprised by the reader responses generated by my columns in the Oxford Times.

In response to my last column on Oxford’s dearth of quality used bookshops, one reader thought I was a tad unfair. She wrote that Oxford “still has marvellous secondhand bookshops…it’s just that they are charity shops”.

I anticipated this riposte, but space prohibited me from quashing it last time.

Allow me to elaborate by describing a used bookstore I recently explored in Montreal called The Word, in the Ville-Marie arrondissement a few streets from McGill University.

Don’t miss it when you are next in the city. In fact, it is reason enough to go there.

Around since 1975, The Word was established by a couple who met at McGill and first started selling paperbacks out of their car boot. Soon they moved into the current cosy premises, which is chock-a-block.

The Word specialises in literature, philosophy and poetry, but you will find all sorts there.

Every autumn university undergrads are encouraged to make a pilgrimage to browse its heaving shelves and assorted piles (some of which crowd out the till).

Plenty of reserves upstairs mean you are guaranteed all the necessary liberal arts staples. And a morning perusal can easily sort one out with an impressive library.

Be careful. The place is quicksand for bibliophiles, so if you are on a budget, bring a limited amount of cash. I emerged with a suitcase-busting stack.

Oxford’s Oxfam alternatives don’t hold up a candle to this place. Their standardised atmosphere on offer is uninspiring. Too much lime green, for starters.

And unlike top quality treasures like The Word, your average charity shop purveys a random selection of cast-offs with little thematic consistency.

Can you find a used copy of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy anywhere in Oxford? Who knows? Unlikely.

Fly to Montreal instead. The Word will have plenty of copies. You are also guaranteed proper ink-related chat with proprietors who know their stuff.

Oxford has one exception – The Albion Beatnik Bookstore. But that’s basically it.

Who is to blame for this shambles? The council, Oxford University Press and colleges take some blame for not doing enough.

But charity shops are a major culprit, good intentions notwithstanding. They get stock for free, enjoy an 80 per cent reduction in business rates and are staffed by volunteers. Professional secondhand booksellers can’t compete.

What is to be done? Someone rich needs to create a sanctuary.

Too bad the long-empty unit on the corner of Broad and Turl Streets is now turning into Cool Britannia, a tourist shop. We don’t have enough of those!