Secondhand books and bookshops

May 19, 2014

I discovered secondhand bookshops as a student: there was one in the Students’ Union where you could buy all the dreary texts you knew you had to read for seminars and tutorials, but would never want to waste eyeball time on again, for a few pence, the rejects of previous generations of students with exactly the same attitude… and then there was the Mersey ferry trip to the bookshop in Birkenhead where you could fill a bin-liner with science fiction for a couple of quid.

The thing about secondhand bookshops is that you never know what you will find – perhaps something you’ve been vaguely looking out for for ages, or something you never knew existed but you can’t resist. There are fewer and fewer of them around now, as Amazon marketplace colonises the market, along with the charity shop chains, and the internet generally. Some are brilliant, huge gold-mines where you need hours to comb through the possibilities, and others aren’t worth the trouble, full of mouldering tomes that no-one will ever buy and that should have been pulped years ago, or, even worse, aren’t properly arranged or categorised, meaning that you can never look properly for anything: the kind of shop that you could tidy up by throwing a grenade through the door…

There are even booktowns now: everyone’s heard of Hay-on-Wye, which is very good; I’m aiming to visit Newton Stewart sometime soon, and every time I drive to the Ardennes the sign for Redu calls to me…

Charity shops have seriously muscled in on the market; many are full of trash, and certain of them, Oxfam in particular, are ridiculously over-priced, with corporate greed dictating pricing policies that put many off. Online booksellers are a minefield: Amazon has encouraged a lot of chancers who flog books with totally inaccurate descriptions; there has been a detailed code for the description of secondhand books offered for sale by post for many years, but Amazon doesn’t use this, sowing confusion and disappointment. On the other hand, it’s now possible to access an enormous range of books you’d never had come across in a lifetime, and track down all kinds of really interesting things.

Another thing I’ve noticed in the last couple of years is the growth of POD (print on demand) which delivers new and often cheaper new copies of old books that are out of copyright, than are available used. The market is definitely changing here, although one needs to be wary of the quality of scanning and proof-reading that took place before the reprint. I’ve noticed, for instance, that there are often very poor quality scans that have been done by the world’s largest search-engine and uploaded to the web…

Now that I have all the books I need (haha) I’ve become very picky. Thanks to secondhand bookshops and the web, I’ve completed my collection of the second series Arden Shakespeare hardbacks. When I visit secondhand bookshops, I make a beeline for the travel section (that won’t surprise readers of this blog). And I recently discovered a very rare Baedeker I was slightly interested in, had been scanned and put online – saved me three figures, if I’d decided to treat myself…

So, I do now ask myself: do I really need it? will I ever actually read it?

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