Second hand bookshops date from times past. And unfortunately, they drag all those dangerous times and ideas with them. So, if you enter one, you’ll have access to a stupefying blend of history, literature, art, science, geography, maths, biography, poetry, music, drama, and philosophy, and more.
Don’t make the mistake of anticipating a few safe and predictable choices. Second-hand bookshops don’t stock what sells or what’s new. Those categories are irrelevant.
Used bookshops sell whatever they want to. This is not conducive to peace of mind.
Yes, second-hand bookshops are also disappearing – but take care: there are a good many of them still waiting quietly on main roads or lurking down side streets. Here’s a handy guide to help you avoid one today.
- You will spend ages in a second-hand bookstore: you’ll never get that time back.
While new bookshops are about selling to you, the used bookstore is about reading – but not to you. Used bookshops owners want to read to themselves. So nobody will bother you. And neither will they want you to bother them.
This rather cavalier attitude makes them loose cannons in the retail industry.
This means you won’t be helped or herded toward a cash register. Instead, you’re on your own to find, discover, reject, dither over, or be seduced by your own shaky choice of volume. This can take hours.
Some people think that Italo Calvino’s book If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveller might help you survive a second-hand bookshop. It won’t. But it certainly is a warning.
2. Second-hand bookshops move and change while you’re in them.
Italo Calvino, in If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveller, gives a warning about how easy it is to be ambushed just within the front door of a second-hand bookstore. This happens because anything could be placed there.
Rob Errera stated early this year that according to a study by Google there were 826 million physical books sold in 2021. This is likely inaccurate. The real number would be higher than this. And any one of those might be placed just within the front door of any used book store.
And every day in a second-hand bookshop, books come, and books go. They fall from and behind shelves, are damaged, misplaced, sold, stolen, and swapped. This means that second hand bookstores are evolving minute by minute.
3. You will have to re- enter the slow world you thought you had left behind.
If speed, efficiency, and confidence are your thing; don’t enter. There is no clarity within a good second-hand bookshop, and there are no solutions.
Do you admire your own ability to speed read. Don’t. Just as well speed breathe. You gain nothing except a shorter life.
Carrying a to-do list? Hide it behind a hardback copy of Don Quixote. This book is big enough to hide your list and everyone else’s you’ll find there. By the way, Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote is a book about everything.
Don’t touch it. You don’t have time. Get back to scrolling your phone.
4. The owner of the shop will not try to sell you anything.
The owner of the shop will be happy to see you scrolling your phone. This is because then they won’t have to put down their copy of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and help you find something you don’t know you want.
Second-hand bookshop owners are on their own intense and immense reading maps. They can’t even see you. But if you don’t heed this advice, and you linger among the stacks for too long, your own reading map will begin to unfold.
Then you’ll be lost to the rest of the world too. You’ll love it when people scroll their phones and leave you to read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, a book which in no way will leave you unscathed.
5. You won’t find what you are looking for.
Unfortunately, second-hand bookshops are not set up for you. They’re set up for the owner, who, like Aziraphale in Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, is not displaying books for sale, but rather storing their own books because their house is full.
Therefore, if you find a gem, and the shop hasn’t read it, they’ll take it back. With so many books in existence in the world, your chances of finding what you want are a million to one.
But then, it was also Terry Pratchett who said in Mort, that ‘magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.’
Terry Pratchett was a wise man. You won’t find any of his books in second-hand bookshops.
6. You will find something you were not looking for.
This is an ever troubling feature of second-hand bookshops. Because they are unpredictable and dynamic, you won’t be able to control your experience.
Say you hope to find the very interesting A Confederacy of Dunces by American novelist John Kennedy Toole. But that one is not there today. Instead, on an unsorted pile nearby, you see Wide Sargasso Sea by Dominican-British author Jean Rhys. This is also a fabulous book.
If you choose it and read it, you’re in trouble. Because now you’ve gone down a different rabbit hole. You might follow up on more books by Rhys, or books by Caribbean writers, or books by other writers who has been appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for their writing.
Or you might pursue more books that ‘answer’ literary classics, in the same way that Wide Sargasso Sea answers Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Regardless of what you choose, you aren’t writing your literary map yourself. You just think you are.
7. Your anti-library will triple in size.
Lebanese American writer, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, coined the term anti-library to describe that portion of your library that you haven’t yet read. Taleb himself, was inspired into the idea by Italian writer Umberto Eco (1932-2016).
Your anti-library is more important that your library. And is should be bigger than the collection of what you have read. Your anti-library represents what you’ve found and where you’re going. It illustrates what you recognise as valuable and demonstrated your own humility.
Unfortunately, each time you enter and engage with the contents of a second-hand book shop, your anti-library will implode.
8. Once you have handled and considered a volume, you cannot undo that action.
We are always engaging with our anti-library. Whether we add to our collection of books to read later or choose not to add to it, we are always influencing the nature of our collection, and the complexity of our reading tastes.
Books are physical objects. They have not been replaced by digital media. Rather, digital media has simply added to the mass of what we can read. Readers don’t seem to have been able to give up the physical book.
Readers handle a story: the volume weighs, smells, shifts, and droops. Its age, girth, and tattiness speak. Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018) remarked that readers read to find out who they are and who they may become. Any action toward (or away from) this discovery cannot be undone.
9. You will leave the shop a different person.
Albert Manguel in A History of Reading described reading as having ‘a particular quality of privacy’. This privacy is personal and profound.
Even when another person has read and loved the same book (A Small Place by Jamaica Kinkaid, for example), their private experience will not be like yours.
This is because reading draws on and adds to every capacity we have and every quality we’ve gained. Therefore, having examined the shelves and made some decisions, you won’t be quite the same person when you leave.
Best to not go in at all.
10. You will leave the shop exhausted. You will return exhausted.
William Styron was an American writer who died in 2006. He said that “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”
Notice that he said several lives. Does he mean the life of the characters or the life of the writer? Or perhaps the life of the story. We know now that artifacts like books are dynamic; they absorb and reflect changing ideas and perceptions over time.
Or does Styron mean you? Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) observed that our minds, once stretched by new ideas, will never regain their original dimensions. Once again, if you don’t want this to happen to you, don’t ever under any circumstances enter a second-hand bookshop.