London suburbs are sweetened by little lumps of opportunity shops. These shops tend to run in packs - two or three together - at the end of a high street, or just round a corner. We suburb-hop of a weekend in London and my heart swells when I find the op-shop stores in a new suburb. I give a cursory glance at the glassware collections (vintage champagne glasses can be identified in an easy ocular sweep of a shelf), run my fingers through the plastic ropes of beads, and then swoop on the inevitable, wonderful stacks of plyboard holding up a treasure chest of pre-loved books.
In bookstores and libraries, op-shops and other people's homes, I have a distinctive spine-reading head tilt. Left to right across a shelf, then right to left on the shelf above or below, eyes angled to run like fingertips across the angular undulations of a row of books.
Like the black jellybean in a packet, some literary collections in an op-shop are an acquired taste. I don't often select tomes from the extensive collections of chick-lit and romance novels, but I do love to compare the pictures on the front (a Mills & Boon aficionado friend, at 18: "avoid anything with a baby on the cover. Always unsatisfying."). Do these books make their way in droves to the second hand stores because, once read, their previous owners are ashamed to let them grace the bookcase?
I recall a guest - a boyfriend of P's friend - commenting on my bookshelf some years ago. He didn't realise I was in earshot and called us wanky for having a dictionary. Didn't he know it was a gift? I thought. Didn't he realise how supremely useful a dictionary could be? I think it was the first conscious realisation that someone's taste in books was akin to a taste in art and was subject to the judgement of others. The guest went on to insult P's CD collection and choice of music to P's face and, unsurprisingly, never graced our apartment again. ("Oh that dick", we said, on learning P's friend was seeing him again). Challenge me, yes. Mock me gently to my face, I'll blush and try to serve it back. But nobody, bar nobody, who wants to drink my wine bags my dictionary. Now there's a line in the sand for you.
There is always a Stephenie Meyer book at the op-shop these days. I think there are a multitude of women who have secretly tried Edward Cullen on for size and clearly, for some, he's been found wanting.
But you never know when there will be a dog eared copy of Dickens, a scraggly paged travel guide of Spain (the best sights in foreign places never go out of date like an old edition. Who needs the hostel recommendations when you've got 5 words of the language and a map?) or, my favourite find to date, a beautiful red and gold leather bound Austen, pages crisped to a faded yellow.