February 13, 2009

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 comments:

Eva said...

Fun post! I found a 'receipt' for a speeding ticket in a used book once. And in high school I found $20 in a used book! :D

As far as condition goes, I like new trade paperbacks, but I certainly don't mind used books. And it is really nice to not have to worry about beating the book up. :D But I hate it when there's a lot of writing in a book!

Eva’s latest blog post:Thoughts On Book Buying

Christine said...

Twenty dollars! That's pretty good. I've never found money.

glumpuddle said...

I don't like too much bashed-upness about used books - and if there's too much writing/underlining/highlighting in a book I won't buy it. And sometimes I do like shiny newness. But I understand about trying new authors at used prices. I never try new authors for full price... Well I made an exception to this rule for a book that was compared to Possession and The Name of the Rose but whoever made the comparison was clearly on drugs, so I will not make an exception again.

I've found some interesting stuff inside, and I consider a bookmark inside a good find too! But never money. Pretty sure most of the used book purveyors I frequent would find the money first.

Alyce said...

The paragraph written on the back cover was very entertaining - I've never found anything like that.

I like used books for their cheapness, but I consider new books to be a nice treat.

Alyce’s latest blog post:Sunday Salon - February 15

raych said...

I see Chapters gift cards as an excuse to buy a new release, but then I make sure and carry it in my purse for a few days so it gets that 'lived in' look. I totally prefer my books pre-snuggled. They're like that pair of jeans that are so old they feel like pajamas.

raych’s latest blog post:The Scream - Rohinton Mistry (illustrations by Tony Urquhart)

Megan said...

I could not have expressed it better. I love my used books, it feels like they have more to say that the blindingly white pages of mass market paper backs.
I find things in mine too, mostly old concert and movie tickets. I have found Bruce Springstien, Queen and Bob Dylan.

Laura said...

I totally agree. I always buy books from charity shops, its a hobby of mine! ... the only problem is I have way too many books now myself! I guess I'll have to donate some so people can share my enjoyment. :) Maybe ill even leave some little messages in there too...

Cassi said...

I feel like used books have a soul, they've lived longer.

Ruth said...

Like Cassi, I feel that used books have a soul. And, as you say, I can use them however I want... :)

I don't like it if they have writing, but otherwise the age of a book doesn't matter to me as long as it's still in a condition to read.

cybele said...

That used books have a history is important. They have been read and loved or hated or received with a yawn or a sigh, and something of those moments is caught in their pages, it seems to me. Sometimes also other things, as you point out; I found a wonderful page of handwritten music once. It's framed now and hanging on my wall because I couldn't bear to part with it, although I later gave the book away. I guess that's greed...
When we were young used books were the only ones we could afford. They were a treasure then and a treasure now. I hope my granddaughter will realize that some day...I gave her a used copy of The Princess Bride and then saw that she thought it wasn't quite "good enough" because it wasn't new. But she's only ten, and living in a consumer-centric society...she'll grow up...I hope.

Michelle said...

Have you heard of frugalreader.com? Check it out. It's my favorite place to find books besides my library. I feel about the library the way you feel about your used books. : )
http://oneordinaryday.wordpress.com/

Michelle’s latest blog post:A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana

Samantha said...

Have to completely agree with you on this. I LOVE used books mostly because of the character. I love getting books with handwritten inscriptions in them. I received this book called wings of the morning for Christmas that was published in 1902 and given as a birthday gift in 1905 and someone wrote to Mary my love from AL happy birthday 1905. I thought that was the most awesome thing and the story was great as well. the price is deff and big perk for me but I would take a used book over a new one anyday.

Tom Holland said...

I read as many as three books a week, and haunt used bookstores, garage sales, swap-meets, etc., for used books. Once, I purchased a book of obscure facts. In it there was a$20 bill and a note that read: "I suspect that if you have paid money for this book used, you probably do not have much money, and if you like such stuff as this book, you ought to be paid to read it!"

I read the book, left the $20 in it, added my thoughts to the note, and donated the book to Goodwill. I often wonder if someone else did the same. I like to think so. If not, I hope the book and the money helped someone live better, if only for a moment.

Kelsey said...

I love used books! The stores are probably my favorite part, I like that you think of it as treasure hunting, because that's exactly what it is. Love it.

Booklover said...

True all the way! Used books have personality, and used book stores are... romantic!!!!!!

You go girl!

Anesthezea said...

"I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to "I hate to read new books," and I hollered "Comrade!" to whoever owned it before me."

— Helene Hanff (84, Charing Cross Road)

Oliver Hernández said...

i agree. i love books and specially old ones. they have this overwhelming scent that traps you into the story. besides, we should all read used books, not because they're cheaper nor the character we can feel in them, we should also think of the environmental consequences of getting brand new books every time we visit the bookstore.

Krissa said...

I love this post! I prefer used books for the same reason. Thanks to this post, you're now on my daily blog reading list. :)

Brian said...

I came across an old book on Art History published early 1900. Beautifully leather bound in perfect condition, it had a plaque saying it was awarded as First Prize 'Art' to a student at a prestigious London school for girls in 1906 and presented by the then Princess Alexander. I gave it as a Christmas present to my daughter who had just majored in Art History. She was delighted. Just two bucks for all that? Wow!

A42 said...

I totally agree with you, love the smell of an old book! Sooo much better then the chemical, sometimes realy awfull smell new books have.
And there are the very valid points discussed in the post & comments of course, slightly disappointed that only comment #18 mentions the magnificent, complex scent an old(er) book can have!

zztop said...

twice a year in my town there is a used book fair... i live and die by it... i get like 80 books and they range from 25cents to 2bucks... i feel like i am in heaven

Jo Ann Ross said...

Having "StumbledUpon" this page and not yet read other posts, ya'll must be from Canada. The snowbirds here in Florida are always talking about Chapters bookstore up there. I work for Books-A-Million.

A while back I bought "Something Borrowed" at Goodwill for 25 cents! Chic Lit is not my thing, but for a quarter it was worth a try. The book was very well written and fun. I've since read two others by Emily Giffin (through the BAM checkout system) and plan to read more of her work. Elizabeth Berg is my favorite writer.

I'm fascinated w/ the Russian Revolution, Hitler and WWII. Maurice Hindus wrote books during the time all these events were taking place. I've been collecting his works in those wonderful cloth-covered early editions.

East Hope is my latest read and it was perfect. Tough subject matter, great characters and landscape.

vain said...

Worthy points, however i have in the last 5 years begun buying new books in order to support the authors, they don't see a penny off of secondhand sales, and i want them to stay in the business of writing! think of it as voting with your dollars, or tipping a musician.

Christine said...

Vain, that's a good point -- and I do think that it's nice to support authors. On a student budget, however, I can't do that all of the time.

(In Canada, the UK, and some other European countries, however, authors do get royalties when their books are checked out from libraries. So there are other ways to support authors than buying new!)

Vali said...

I love this post. Used books too.

Robert M. Cavezza said...

Great post! You know if there's a website that allows you to find used bookstores?

RMC

Robert M. Cavezza’s latest blog post:The Limitations of Your Emurse Profile

Melanie said...

I was pleased to read this as I also love used books. It was a habit I got into when I was a student and haven't got out of it. I enjoy finding older, unknown authors serendipitously at sales -- I've found some wonderful ones! Also, I wish more people felt as you do: I ran a used bookshop for a few years but couldn't maintain it. We had to close but we now sell online (through
Biblio.com Used Books
, and in answer to the comment above, on Biblio, you can search for stores which sell online but also have a physical shop as well if you want to locate browsing opportunities in your area.)

Melanie’s latest blog post:Kate's Food & Fiction Meme

Friday Procrastination: Link Love : OUPblog said...

[...] An excellent look at why one woman loves second hand books. [...]

avisannschild said...

Love this post, Christine! I just discovered your blog via Melanie's (Indextrious). I also love the treasure hunt aspect of shopping for used books, although I can't recall finding much in the way of treasures in the books... Certainly no money! And I do hate books that have been underlined or whatnot.

avisannschild’s latest blog post:Friday Finds (February 27)

Jan said...

Oh, one more thing. Sometimes books have words circled or otherwise marked. I like that. I like trying to figure out the pattern of what they were trying to emphasize. It's a mystery.

Jan’s latest blog post:Why I Don’t Teach School:

Jan said...

I feel that the only books I can read while taking a bath are those I have bought second hand.

I am also a determined dog-ear-er. After have been flogged by a librarian, the books I am most fond of are my own thrift store books.

Unless they smell bad.

Jan’s latest blog post:Why I Don’t Teach School:

dragonfliee said...

I love this post and I live for my used books. I find a certain ambiance to them. Since the type of book I read usually transports me elsewhere in time and location it adds to it if the book is well traveled too. Used books kind of go with the other much loved but slightly ( and I am using these terms for emphasis only ) " used " and therefore "unwanted" things in the world like all of the pets that need homes and older children that need adopted. There is much love and adventure to be found in second hand land.

Stephen said...

I completely understand the love you feel for used books. I have a favorite used bookstore by my house and sometimes i could swear im the only one keeping them in business. The fact that they are cheap is just icing on the cake. Ever since I realized that i was a bibliomaniac it was already too late to save myself. I frequent all the used bookstores in my area. I may only be 19 years old, but I have already collected over three thousand books...and i have read them all. I love the smell of books, the smoothness of the pages but most of all i just love having them, and having them ALL around me. When i go to any bookstore for the first time i usually spend most of the day looking through everything that i can put hands on. Whenever i buy a book, i tend to treat it as if it were the most precious thing in the world. When i get brand new books from bookstore like Borders i can read the whole book and not have cracked the spine, curled the cover (meaning that when i lay a book down it still sits flat as if it was never opened), dirtied the pages, roughed up the corners or anything...this is a direct result from my OCD over books. I probably spend too much on books, used or new that i should, but right now i manage ok with my expenses, even though i mostly eat instant ramen now because money is so tight (because of all the books i buy). I manage to buy at least 20-40 books a week, almost all used, and i love the feeling of buying them...of having them...of looking for more. Truth be told just talking about it now makes me short of breath and antsy to get up and get more books. Well...I'll be off now before i work myself up to a frenzy and splurge away my food money (wouldn't be the first time!).

Laura said...

I completely agree with you :)

Books with dog-eared pages and doodles in the margins make me happy. I bought a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and in the back a little kid had drawn a picture and written "Remember Me." It was cute.

hypatia said...

"(In Canada, the UK, and some other European countries, however, authors do get royalties when their books are checked out from libraries. So there are other ways to support authors than buying new!)"

It's interesting, I was just talking about this practice with an author today and the general view on the topic is "hope springs eternal". Basically unless you are an incredibly popular author who has plenty of "waiting list cred" you don't see a dime.

hypatia’s latest blog post:The Future of TV

Corey said...

So true! Not too many things beat a great used book. Not only that, but you're saving trees by buying it used. You can also find some gems of books that might not be popular if you buy used books. I've started selling used books online, but I've found that I want to keep many of the books I've purchased from estate sales and the like, just because they are so unique.

Great blog

Demented said...

the one great tragedy of the used book is that the author will never receive recompense for it. Sure, the book was bought once, but to never buy a new book? I hope you write your favorite authors so they at least know they're being read.

Steve Evans said...

90% of my books come from charity shops (some authors I just have to have their new book as soon as it's released) there's even a few specialist charity shops that deal solely in music and books. I can spend hours in there browsing the shelves for that 'classic I should have read by now' or sometimes just grabbing a book because the title page grabs me. It costs me all of £1.50 for a book... if it's any good I'll probably lend it to my sister, or a friend - and then it goes back to the charity shops (normally a different charity, spreading the love and all that)

So I get to read a wide array of books, some awesome, some awful, and I get to help out those in need, and I get to save money. It's a win win win.

Christine said...

Actually, Demented, most of my favourite authors are dead... I don't worry much about recompense to the author's estate!

As for living authors, I buy new when I can, but when I can't, I don't feel any guilt over that. I may not have directly contributed to the author's royalties, but when I talk about the books I'm reading or review them here, I can at least hope that someone else will be interested enough to give that book a shot.

Meade said...

I too love used books,but not abused books.I hate when someone has removed a page or two for what ever reason,the coolest thing I ever found in a used book...A small drawing on the upper right corner of every page in an English Litterature text book,I bought in Manhattan Kansas.This was way back in 1981.If you thumbed through the whole thing,you could watch two stick people walk into a building,find an unoccupied classroom.And have quite an acrobatic bout of love making.Complete with the old Batman style of sound effects{"zowie,boing,ta-daa,etc,}.What made it so cool was,It was taking place in the same room number {128},that my class was being held in.I always wondered if the person who made the drawings,did it because they were as bored as I was in that class room.It really must have taken quite a long time to complete,and I wonder if they were ever caught making one of the drawings,and if they got a passing grade for the course.

Favorite Books said...

I agree with all your points. My favorite part of used books are the personal memos or notes left by previous owners. I find if fascinating to get a glimpse into someone else's world and experience.

James said...

I love used books, especially the yellowed, fragile feeling ones, the ones that smell like biscuits and lazy winter afternoons by a blazing fire...mmmmmmmm...bookstore on satutrday for me!

Stephanie Moore said...

I love used books. I love the smell of them. I deliberately look for ones that have 'marginalia' in them- the strangest thing I found in a used book was a photo of a man and a woman at a birthday party opening gifts.

The title page of my copy of Catch-22 has all of these words scrawled on it. Evidently, the reader had recorded all of the interesting words in the book and the page numbers. I had read it before without noticing how great these words are- how weighty and unique they are...

Tyler said...

I love new books for many similar reasons you love used books. While you like books with character already, I love to build the character of the book. I love to give my books the new creases, the rips, maybe the coffee ring. I love finishing a book, and looking at it tattered, and creased.

Dave said...

I once found a deed of sale to a property in North Carolina from the 1700s. I framed it and hung it in my office.

Michael said...

I found this blog through Stumbleupon.com, and I wanted to let you know that I greatly enjoyed reading this post. I thought I was the only one who preferred used books over new, so it's nice to know that there are other people out there like me. I like books that have a little wear on the covers, and maybe even some yellowing of the pages. Like you, I feel that this adds character to a book. I think that a shelf full of well read, broken in books looks much better than a shelf stuffed with shiny, spotless new books. That just looks too sterile to me. There's a great used bookstore here in my town. The aisles are narrow, and the shelves are piled high with books, almost to the point of falling over. The store is so full of books, that the owners have even taken to stacking books in chairs, on tables, and even on the floor. I love it there. A husband and wife own the store, and they both know me by name now. My best used book find was an original first edition of James Michener's "The Source" in hardback. The book is over 40 years old, and I found it online for only $10.00. The dust jacket is slightly shelfworn, and the pages have that great "old book" smell. I also love the fact that on the back of the dust jacket, there's a picture of James Michener taken in 1965, for the book's initial release. The binding is tight and firm, too, so there's no damage of pages falling out. It was a great bargain, I think. It's one of the treasures of my library.

I do have to buy some books new, though. I buy about 50/50 new and used. I do this because I just can't wait for some authors' books to turn up at my local used bookstore. For new books, I go to Barnes and Noble. I live in North Carolina, and we have them all over the place here. I have a friend who lives in Vancouver, though, and she loves Chapters. She buys books there at least several times a month. I browsed their website before, and they seem to have a great selection.

Cathy said...

I love used books because I can spill coffee and noodles and bath water on them without feeling bad about it. Not worrying about keeping them pristine allows me to relax and enjoy them with my morning coffee and lunch and hot bath. :-)

Sherri said...

I love to find a used book with marginalia, underscored passages, etc. I once purchased a used copy of a book by Nadezhda Mandelstam and found inside it some newspaper clippings from a San Francisco newspaper about the prose writings of her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam. It introduced me to a side of his work I knew nothing about. Pretty cool.

hanna said...

in my friend's freshman art history book there was an inscription that read "Dear Ben, I hope that this book furthers your love and knowledge of art. Love, Grandma." she'll never know the book wound up on ebay....

p0ntus said...

Have any of you people ever been to a library? They have tons of used books there. And they let you take them home for free, just for the price of a little property tax paid to the local government anyway. Can you imagine? How great is that?

Plus, the books are actually read instead of spending countless years making some [expletive deleted] yuppies think they're better than everyone else because of the size of their vintage book collection.

In addition to that, the variety of people you could meet at a library is astounding, especially compared to the homogeneous group of metro hipster [expletive deleted] at a used book sale.

Stephanie said...

In fact, many of my used books were bought at library sales. Tax dollars aren't the only thing that support local libraries.
.-= Stephanie ´s last blog ..Banned, Censored, Challenged: Looking For Alaska =-.

Bead Booty said...

I couldn't have said it better myself! And don't forget the smell....used books just have that well worn smell about them.
.-= Bead Booty´s last blog ..Supplies - 20 Gauge Silver Colored Copper Wire =-.

batmannn said...

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.

Dan DeClark said...

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"

ash said...

Have you read Billy Collins' "Marginalia"? Definitely goes to point No. 2:

http://www.billy-collins.com/2005/06/marginalia.html

Susan James said...

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 =-.

t.schroeder said...

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.

Tyson said...

I like that Used Books are Previously Enjoyed. It`s like a stamp of approval to have well-worn pages and covers.

Drifter Smith said...

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!

Bri said...

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.

Cheapy Da Sheeple-Daddio said...

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. :)

B said...

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.

Luke said...

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.

Reasons why you should buy second-hand books | One Forty said...

[...] 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?” [...]