We’re sitting in the restaurant gazing at the menu, but shyly glancing at one another. We try to remember how long it’s been and finally settle on ‘more than 20 years’, so a mutual inventory is inevitable. Marcia, a few years older, looks younger. She has the look I love—serene chic—a slate blue Mandarin blouse, a double strand silver necklace. She looks like an Eileen Fisher ad. After we order, we skim through the missing decades. She’s now a grandmother, her only daughter married to a lawyer who’s on the staff of a senator I admire. Her father, a former US ambassador and Cold War warrior, left the beautiful family farm in Middleburg, Virginia, to a foundation dedicated to his memory, a blow (imagine) to his four children.
But Marcia doesn’t dwell on regrets. After her marriage ended, she started a secondhand bookshop in Georgetown, the ancient, leafy section of Washington. Her business partner was the novelist Larry McMurtry, who shared Marcia’s passion for tracking down, buying and selling books: the good, the rare, the irreplaceable. Called Booked Up, the bookshop was an institution in a city full of booklovers. I still have the books I bought there: Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find.
Marcia’s shop was a place of pilgrimage, the perfect blend of antiquarian and second-hand, with the woody smell of acidfree paper, the peace of timeless browsing, the bliss of discovering haveable treasures. When I heard that it had closed, after 35 successful years, I grieved even though I lived 3,000 miles away.
‘They’re all disappearing now,’ she tells me. First, it was the landlords who want a Starbucks or a mobile-phone shop, proof the neighbourhood is on the up. But the deadly arrow was the internet.
‘It began with Amazon,’ Marcia says. Suddenly, people could go online. Amazon beat the publishers down, had low rent and staff costs. Precise, efficient, cheap and fast. But not the serendipitous and out of print.
Then, along came www.alibris.com and www.abebooks.com, the online survival instinct of used booksellers. The sellers soon discovered that they no longer needed the little shop with the bell on the door and the cat in the window. All that was required was postage scales, Jiffy bags and a willingness to catalogue and send books. Within five years, one of the most appealing pillars of the civilised world had vanished. I confess my guilt to Marcia. When I first discovered Amazon, it seemed like a miracle: the isolation of country life was over and the books arriving in their brown cartons felt like presents. Until a 42in flat-screen TV was charged to my Amazon account by someone in Liverpool.
Untangling the fraud was hell. I cancelled my 1-Click account and transferred my affection to www.abebooks.com. Midnight prowls, searching for long-lost books, became an addiction. I comforted myself with the knowledge that www.abebooks.com consisted of thousands of used-book sellers. Marcia then warns me of another threat more terrible to the world of books than all the above. The Kindle and other wireless reading devices. ‘People will never forego the sheer pleasure of rippling the pages, sniffing, owning a book,’ I say.
‘But if you can carry around 300,000 books, your newspaper —and probably Country Life— in your handbag?’ She looks at me. ‘Remember when we wrote letters? Now, we send emails. And we collected records and CDs? We now have iPods.’ Waterstones has sold 30,000 Sony Readers this year. Last year, Mr McMurtry wrote a meditation on modern reading habits. In it, he said that ‘the complex truth is that many activities last for centuries, and then simply (or unsimply) stop’. Go out and buy it while you can. It’s called Books: A Memoir.