Why I Love Second-Hand Books

Recently I was given a thank-you note for a service I’d performed for my choir, and inside that note was a gift card for Chapters of some certain value. When I thanked T, the purchaser, she said this:

Now you don’t have to go to the used bookstores. You can buy new books, that look nice on the shelf.

And I didn’t say anything to her then, but I was a little bit flabbergasted by this statement. Sure, new books are okay, I guess — but I love second-hand books. I don’t shop for used books because they’re all I can afford (well… sometimes they are, but it’s still not the primary reason). I shop for used books because I genuinely prefer them.

Why do I like you better, second-hand books? Let’s count:

1) You are cheap, cheap as all get-out. I love that I can go to a used bookstore and get my school reading for $20 instead of $100. I love being able to buy ten books at a time … at a buck apiece. And being able to get a book for a small cash outlay means that I’m more likely to try out new authors, whose books I may afterwards buy at full price — if they’re good enough!

2) You are used. It might seem strange, but I don’t like reading new books. I don’t like new books as objects: too shiny, too crinkly, too bright. I like my books to have some character: some dents, maybe some tears, yellowed pages. It’s a character thing, and also a mark that a book has been well-read, if not necessarily well-loved. I feel more connected to other readers, somehow, when I know I’m reading something that’s been in other hands before.

3) You are found in charming places. I’ll go to the big shiny bookstores when I have a gift card or something, but mostly I like the shopping experience at used/discount stores better. One of my favourites has tiny aisles and giant piles everywhere and styles itself the “world’s messiest bookstore,” an epithet which is probably deserved. Finding a book there is like treasure-hunting.

4) I can treat you badly and not worry about it. I bend corners and use things like mugs and table edges instead of bookmarks, and I throw my books around a lot when they’re being moved between my bag and the shelves, or rather from my bag to the floor and eventually possibly onto a bookshelf. Used books are already a little dingy, so hey, what does it matter if I accidentally break the spine?

5) Marginalia, mementos, and other things are enclosed. Sometimes used books come with surprises inside. Old receipts. Photographs. Cartoons. Grocery lists. I found a copy of Alias Grace with a very sweet dedication in it. And my $2 copy of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India has this to say on the inside back cover:

I don’t understand — I still don’t really understand why he wants to see other people. Why does he need to kiss them? Yuk. it must be that he needs to put himself in a situation where something could happen and see if he could allow it to. almost as thought he’s testing his feelings/love for me. Perhaps he wants to see if he could kiss someone else too. if he feels something when he kisses them then… to me this seems a bit naive. i’m sure if i put myself in a situation where i was with someone i’d always found attractive i’d be able to kiss them. if I put myself in that situation with brooke actually i don’t know. has about danielle? I have this feeling if i did it would be disappointing. I’m not sure — the thought of him kissing someone else makes me want to throw up. I can talk about this forever with everyone and still I feel nauseous when I think about it.

Gee, I’m sorry to hear that! Maybe he wants to kiss other people because he’s a big jerk. You know, just my two cents.

6) Did I mention the “cheap” thing?

64 thoughts on “Why I Love Second-Hand Books

  1. yeah but bead booty they smell like rank old peoples houses and horrible stale asian smell.also, i love giving a book character – i want to be the one who puts in the dents and yellow pages. i dont want some strangers breath all touching my hands, ew.


  2. My uncle once bought an Ogden Nash book of poetry at a flea market for a dollar. It turned out to be a first edition with a handwritten thank you on the inside. “To the Kurds. You don't do things in halves you do them in thirds”


  3. I love old books. I love to think how many other people have touched and loved the book before me. Lynn Truss talked about this in Eats Shoots and Leaves; how she was reading an old book in a library and saw a scrawled note in the margin from 50 years ago. 50 years later a possibly dead person's voice was being heard by another reader- book discussion from the great beyond. That just can't be done with a new book or an ebook..-= Susan James´s last blog ..A Beautifully Thought Out Way to End A Childhood Dream =-.


  4. you should go to Parnassus Books in yarmouth port, ma on cape cod. talk about treasure hunting. although, i'm not sure of the bargins. it is down the street from edward gorey's former home.


  5. There are many reasons to like used books and the stores that sell them.My favorite: used book stores frequently have a much better selection of stuff that is worth reading than you'll find in new bookstores.Here in Arizona we have a chain called “Bookman's” with outlets in Tucson, Phoenix, and Flagstaff. The one's I've visited are as large as a supermarket and are full of very good books. The folks who work in these places seem to know quite a bit – they also take books in trade (and give you credits that can be spent like cash on more books, etc), but they are pretty selective about what they'll take and put on the shelf. So the overall quality of what is on the shelves is (in my estimation, anyway) a lot higher that what I could find up the street at the local Barnes and Nobel.Bookman's also buys and sells music, videos, and computer software – to mention the most common stuff. They have a fairly rapid turnover of stuff on the shelf, lots of serious readers shop there regularly. I think the new bookstores seem to focus most on this month's bestsellers – but serious readers are still trying to find good stuff they may have missed when it first came out, or old classics from the past. You'll have a hard time finding that in a new book store: lots of really great stuff is now out of print!


  6. here here! I agree, I ADORE second hand and old books. For all of the above stated reasons, but also, because the design of some the older books is simply stunning. They just don't make them like they used to, and the covers and illustrations in old books is gorgeous and well-thought-out and just freaking amazing.


  7. Pay no cent!Just get electronic books from Project Gutenberg in text format then upload them to your mobile phone and read whatever, whenever, wherever you want. 🙂


  8. Electronic books? that is the worst thing technology has brought us. new or old I love the feel of a book. don't we look at computer screens enough? I fear the day when books are only released electronically. and talk about a waste of electricity to charge up your kindle or other device to read. all i need is a little sunlight and i'm good to go. To the author- buying used books is great, but trading books are fun also. you get something new to read, and the books that you haven't read in a long time will have a new life with someone else.


  9. Love it. I also only like to buy and read second hand books.Thanks for your post. I'm glad I'm not the only one.


  10. […] You can treat it badly without feeling guilty. “I bend corners and use things like mugs and table edges instead of bookmarks, and I throw my books around a lot when they’re being moved between my bag and the shelves, or rather from my bag to the floor and eventually possibly onto a bookshelf. Used books are already a little dingy, so hey, what does it matter if I accidentally break the spine?” […]


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