One of the fixtures of the Cambridge year is the annual Cambridge University Press booksale. It lasts for a week or ten days in January, with the shelves continually being replenished as they empty. The Press sell off oodles of “damaged” books (where, very often, the only damage is caused by a neat red stamp on the verso of the title page, marking the book as “DAMAGED”). The going rate for a few years has been £3 for any paperback, and £7 for a hardback. The range of titles is extraordinary. And you can pick up some delightful bargains — important but inessential work-related books that it would be really rather nice to have but which you would never have forked out the full price for, or interesting finds that are intriguing enough to take a chance on. So far this year, I’ve picked up a few pleasing purchases, including a copy of Linsky’s The Evolution of Principia Mathematica which I’ll want to dip into (but could never have warranted spending £100 on), and a paperback of David Wyn Jones’s The Life of Haydn which is proving to be fascinating and highly readable.
But — O tempora o mores! — truffling through the sale shelves just isn’t the enjoyable experience it used to be. In the past the rule was that you could only buy ten books at a time (or was it a ten a day? I think so). There were busy times, but it was mostly other readers young and old you were bumping into, and you would have occasional friendly book chats to people as you browsed, swapping recommendations, and (by the sad standard of academics) a quietly Fun Time was had by all.
Now the rules have changed. You can buy as many books as you can cart away. So various second-hand booksellers come with bags and bags, boxes and boxes, and stand around like vultures, pouncing as soon as the staff bring out more stock as shelves empty, immediately grabbing great armfuls, not quite coming to blows but certainly jostling for space. And just as, when at a buffet, people heaping enormous stacks of food onto their plates simply puts you right off your lunch, this too is off-putting — the rapaciousness on display by people who want to turn a quick buck rather than find some interesting (and perhaps previously unaffordable) books to read themselves. Greed is never a good look.
I know that the Press want to get rid of a lot of stock in their sale. But it’s rather sad that in the process of increasing the number of books they get rid of (if that’s what’s happening) the genuinely enjoyable atmosphere seems to have gone.
Update Others have expressed disquiet too: new arrangements have been announced, with early morning until 10.30 and afternoons after 3.30 as “quiet times”. Hopefully this will help.
Another update The new arrangements have indeed made for a much more congenial experience, the couple of times I’ve dropped by since.