Posts Tagged ‘secondhand books’

Caveat emptor

November 27, 2017

A post about buying second-hand books, with a bit of a moan…

I’ve been buying second-hand books for years. Sometimes it’s because a book is out of print, sometimes I’ve come across something I didn’t know of in a shop and fancied reading it, and sometimes I go for a cheaper copy because I’m not that sure whether I’ll like something or want to keep it for very long.

There are two ways of buying a used book: from a real shop, and online. In a real shop, you know what you are getting, quality-wise: you can examine the book, its binding, and see whether there are any pen marks or anything else you don’t like about it. You will know if it stinks of ancient cigar-smoke. Some second-hand bookshops are a disgrace, so disordered that they could be tidied up by throwing in a grenade. I tend to leave in frustration. Most are reasonably organised. Most are reasonably priced, too, though occasionally it’s obvious an owner is having a laugh with his prices – think of a figure, then double it kind of thing. Charity shops are another issue: some haven’t a clue about pricing, in which case there are either amazing bargains to be had, or such silly prices for a book that again, you have to leave in frustration.

And then there’s the internet, now a veritable minefield, and where one is most likely to get one’s fingers burned. If what you click on is what you get, in terms of described condition, then that’s fine. Often it’s not. Second-hand shops generally adhere to quite a careful and detailed code for describing the state of a book when they sell online; others do not, particularly sellers on ebay, and on the aggregate websites like amazon, abebooks and the like.

What happens when something isn’t as described? You can take the hit – I don’t. I always complain. Amazon is pretty good and pretty prompt at dealing with issues, even though I have to confess that I don’t like dealing with this behemoth in any of its forms and avoid it as much as possible. You usually get a satisfactory conclusion – a full or partial negotiated refund. Abebooks – part of the amazon empire – isn’t so helpful, as I discovered a couple of years ago when a print-on-demand version of a rare book from India wasn’t as described. They abdicated almost all responsibility, wanted me to return the book first – to India! at my cost! and hope for a successful refund. Ha ha! Lesson learned, and abebooks has lost my business.

Others carp and cavil and try to fob you off with partial refunds, as World of Books did recently. But if a book is of such poor quality that it should never have been put for sale described as in VERY GOOD condition (!) then a partial refund for something you wouldn’t have given any money for if you’d actually seen it, is no consolation. Or, as with a two volume reference set that I could only source from the USA, which turned out, without advertising it, only to be selling volume 1 (!) – what is the point? Money wasted.

So, as I said, I complain. Politely, but moaning in full detail about my disappointment, with copious details of what has fallen short. Because I don’t think people should be allowed to get away with it, and it’s our inertia if we do nothing that encourages them to carry on in that vein. Most of the time, I have had my money refunded in the end. And the book, if useless to me , goes to a charity shop.

Whatever is for sale, it’s a jungle out there. I love the fact that I can find out about books I never knew existed, and can source them from all corners of the globe. As a book-lover, I wouldn’t be without it. I will pay good money for good books I’ve been searching for. But I will call out those sellers who think they can fob us off with rubbish, with books not as described, with stuff that belongs in a skip.

Normal service will be resumed in my next post…

On compulsive book-buying

October 27, 2015

I have too many books. There are people who would say you can never have too many, and I was once one of them. But they are taking over, and what is worse, I can’t see myself ever reading them all. Life is now too short.

The problem is, I love bookshops, especially secondhand ones, and I love looking in bookshops when I’m in France, with a chance to see all the books that are never going to be translated into English. And I treat myself, rather than regret not doing so, later. The books pile up; a lot of them do get  read, but for some of them, the moment passes and they just sit there, reproachful.

I have often been scathing about people who spend money on things I don’t approve of, who waste or fritter money away, by my standards, on things they’ll never use, clothes they’ll only wear a couple of times, and so on: I’m very moralistic about such things. And then I think about my book-buying habits: how is buying a book I’ll never get round to reading any different? Except that I can tell myself it’s something worthwhile, cultural, mental stimulus or whatever, and therefore superior to other people’s fripperies. The fact of the matter is that I’m likely now only to read it the once, or maybe twice if I really like it…

With other stuff, that other people (and I) accumulate, disposal seem easier. But parting with books is, while not exactly painful, pretty difficult for me. I can always tell myself, well, you may read it one day, well you may re-read it one day, if you’ve got rid of it then it will be harder to find when you do want it and it will cost a lot more than the £x you paid for it… I don’t have the patience to re-sell books online, so I end up giving them away to charity, a sort of tax, if you like.

I can criticise others for impulse-buying, and yet that often happens with books! I’ll be in a secondhand bookshop and see something, think, ‘That looks interesting!’ or, ‘I read something about that last year and I’d like to read more…’ and another book joins the pile. So, last week, a book about Prester John joined the pile, because I love Umberto Eco‘s Baudolino which is partly about the quest for Prester John, I enjoyed John Buchan‘s eponymous novel, and I have two volumes of a weighty Hakluyt Society publication about Prester John that have beenwaiting for me to read for over ten years…

I’ve also gradually learned that there’s something like overeating, but with books: I can follow a theme or topic and overdo it, acquiring and trying to read too many books on that subject, eventually too full with it, as it were. So, my next post will be about an Arabian traveller of the twelfth century, with whom I probably should not have bothered, like an extra serving of cheese or pudding…

Fading into obscurity…

June 13, 2015

I often find myself wondering about how much literature is lost, perhaps forever, just through the passage of time and the changing of fashions. Books go out of print and are forgotten; once gone, how few are ever rediscovered. These thoughts are often prompted by secondhand bookshops, especially the crumbling and ancient ones filled with fusty and mouldering tomes, which I often feel could be tidied by a judicious hand-grenade, and probably belong in a skip anyway…

Then I’m prompted by Theodore Sturgeon‘s observation – which I’m sure I’ve quoted before in a post – that 95% of science fiction is crap, but then 95% of everything is crap. So, much that is written and published deserves to vanish; if, like me you sometimes despair on looking at what is offered for sale (new) in bookshops, you will know what I mean. Does it matter what vanishes? In some ways I feel it does, because what disappears affects our understanding of the past, and I only need to recall the classics rescued from obscurity by a publisher such as Virago to be convinced of this.

When I used to raise the topic with my sixth form students, the touchstone question, to which they could all relate, was “Will future generations still read Harry Potter, or will those books also suffer the fate of the rest?” They were all convinced the books would survive; I was almost convinced then, but am less so now. I suspect they may disappear, to be rediscovered in a couple of generations or so.

What seems to change the situation is the increasing prevalence of digital texts, and the growth in people reading books electronically in preference to on paper. Surely this means that a text is far less likely to remain in print or to be reprinted, and there are also fewer paper copies extant to survive. Copyright lasts for 75 years after an author’s death: should this be shorter so that works can be digitally distributed free and thus survive in the public domain?

I remember two writers who were very much in vogue in the 1970s, when I was at university, and various reputations were being made through research and writing about them: D H Lawrence and Joseph Conrad. Now, I have the impression that it’s almost embarrasing to admit reading Lawrence, and Conrad is just so obscure, few have even heard of him. Similarly, two of the greats of science fiction when I first came to the genre were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. Though the former was seminal in his consideration of artificial intelligence, he has been completely overtaken by today’s reality, and the latter does seem to have been overshadowed my many great contemporary SF writers, though I still don’t think anyone has bettered The City and the Stars.

Texts are largely preserved nowadays by elites and academia: perhaps this was always the case? Again, in discussion with students, I would raise the question of what one might call the ‘eternal themes’ of literature: love, death, war, growth as aspects which might ensure a work’s survival; many texts focus on these themes, so it is not them alone which make a work survive. There has to be something which transcends time, crosses generations and their different interests and preoccupations, whereas it seems that texts which disappear into obscurity are too rooted in their own time to speak to future generations. And there I come full circle in this post, and realise that if we want to understand a particular time, then we do not just need history books and ephemera from that time, but also its literature.

What of our age’s literature will be remembered and preserved?

Confessions of a serial book abuser

June 6, 2015

While I was sorting out books to dispose of recently, I was a little shocked by the condition of some of them, and by what I had done to them.

I’ll start by saying that I know there are people who like to keep books in pristine condition. It isn’t possible, and it doesn’t work. I know, because I sometimes turn to a book I bought twenty years ago and have yet to read, and it has inevitably degraded over time: colours of the cover and spine fade, the glue weakens or crumbles, the paper goes brown or spotty.

I’ve always felt my books are mine to do what I like with. Mainly I read them, but they do get used – some would say abused. Over the years, for instance, I’ve got better at using bookmarks, but if I don’t have one to hand, then I will fold over the corner of the page… I have always written my name and the date I acquired a book on the flyleaf. This never did stop me lending and then losing books, so now I often use a post-it note instead, especially if a book has nice endpapers.

I log when I read a book – just the date, on the back flyleaf. Useful information, shocking at times.

I suppose my worst offence in the eyes of many will be the fact that I annotate some of the books I read. Mitigating circumstances: I’m not as bad as I was when a student, when every book was annotated and usually in ballpoint pen! This, of course, eventually meant they were unsaleable, and some of the books in the recent cull went to the recycling bin rather than the charity sale because of this. But I still annotate, though now I use 2B pencil, and jot ideas down on the back flyleaf rather than throughout the text, so that theoretically I can clean up the book. And yes, I get furious if I buy a secondhand book that contains someone else’s marginalia, though this is usually because some internet seller has described a book incorrectly and I’ve bought someone else’s annotations unawares.

I don’t feel guilty about any of this: the book is mine, I read it, think about what the writer has to say, interact with her/him, and learn… what I am more concerned about is my magpie habit, that I must keep every book, rather than moving it on to another home after I’ve done with it. However, I’m working on that. There is a kind of secondhand bookshop – if you’ve been in one, you’ll recognise the type – where your heart sinks as you look at rows and rows of hundreds of mouldering, ancient books and you think, these all need throwing in a skip… I don’t want a library like that.

The frustration of buying books online…

October 24, 2014

Am I the only heavy reader who is finding what used to be a boon – the ability to track down and buy almost any book online – increasingly a nightmare? Amazon is now a minefield with its postage charges unless you spend a tenner. Well, I’m sorry, I’m not about to search your store for some crap I don’t want to get my order up to the minimum. So, for instance, when I was out to buy the new Sherlock Holmes tale Moriarty, the £9.00 tag didn’t hook me. I waited, and did click & collect for a tenner from my local Waterstones. Anyway, the more I learn about Amazon means the more I seek to avoid them, with their tax dodging, shitty treatment of their workers and bullying of other booksellers in their effort to create a monopoly. Thank heaven for price comparison websites, especially since if you buy from the Book Depository or Abe Books you’re also buying from Amazon. Wordery is now my bookseller of choice.

The situation with secondhand books is even worse, and it’s my latest experience that has provoked this rant: a paperback plastered with green highlighter pen….  Sellers juggle with daft prices and excessive postal charges to maximise their take, especially when Amazon is taking its cut, and Amazon marketplace is the worst but other sellers are fast catching up.

First there’s the book ordered which never arrives. OK, tell them, and usually there’s an automatic refund. But – did the book exist in the first place? Inventory control isn’t wonderful out there, and anyway, if I’ve waited the two weeks for it to not arrive, then I’m seriously fed-up and have to start all over again.

Then there’s the book which isn’t as described – the most common issue, and where getting redress becomes more difficult. It seems most sellers never check the condition of what their machinery is mailing out, so pencil, biro and felt pen or highlighter abounds. Although secondhand booksellers have for many years had a detailed code for giving the condition of their books, Amazon has its own; most sellers will describe any book as ‘good’ in my experience, even when not. So, it’s a bit of a lottery out there when faced with a choice of half-a-dozen or so sellers all offering the book in good condition, all at the amazing price of £2.81!

When one does complain, often one is made to feel a cheapskate for complaining about something so cheap – a penny! – but the postage charge changes all that. Huge book barns out there handle enormous numbers of books, and their inventory control often includes barcode stickers. OK, fair enough, but on the back and the front of a book? and using non-peelable labels? Come off it!

Real secondhand bookshops are disappearing fast; their stock is often limited, sometimes mouldering and inventively priced. Charity shops have muscled in on the act, and one of the chains has an absolutely barking pricing policy. But hey, it’s a charity! I know I’m old-fashioned, but there are times when I yearn for the days of the Net Book Agreement and real shops. I’d probably spend more, overall, and more gladly. And then I think about all the amazing things that the web has allowed me to track down…

Rant over; if you got this far you may award yourself a prize…

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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