Posts Tagged ‘secondhand bookshops’

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…

Getting Rid of Books

June 5, 2015

Recently we forced ourselves to have a clear-out, and several hundred volumes found their way to a local Amnesty International book sale. Novels I knew I’d never open again, and a lot of books on sexual politics from the time when I was writing my thesis about thirty years ago, were among those that left the house. Although it hurts to part with books, for them to go to a good cause feels rather like a voluntary charity tax and made it a bit more bearable. But, after the cull, did the creaking shelves in our estures look very different? …no, not really.

And then – fatal error – we went on holiday. One of the things I always do before going away is look up secondhand bookshops where we are heading. And the north Norfolk coast is a very good hunting-ground, which I can thoroughly recommend if you don’t have enough books. The seaside is also very nice. So, quite a number of new volumes joined my library… and they will be read and enjoyed, and possibly not sit permanently on the shelves, but find their way to charity shops as soon as read.

I am also running up against a new problem: buying the same book twice! I always used to have an accurate memory of what was on the shelves at home, but when the aggregate hits about two and a half thousand, I can’t carry the full catalogue in my head, and consequently there are times when I get home, start to catalogue a new book, and discover I have it already… I have gone as far as to save a stripped down version of the catalogue on my phone so that I can check if I’m in doubt, but when I’m sure I don’t have the book, of course I don’t bother to check. Hmm.

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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