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.
Quiet as quiet. I can hear the teacups and spoons chatting next door in the bakery – I can hear that through the wall. There is nobody outside.
Wait, that’s wrong. There’s a ute pulling a Jim’s Mowing and Garden Care trailer. The driver is jogging across to the bakery. Now three women climbing from a car in front of me, looking in my window but passing on by.
I update all the displays.
A young couple with a pram passing the window. He looks at the window and says, ‘I’ve read that.’ She says, ‘Come on.’
There are now two Jim’s Mowing units parked across the road. The drivers are standing together eating lunch. A car skids around the corner opposite the carpark entrance, and both workers look up and across.
A lady phones for Juliette Marillier books. Someone phones for Alexander McCall Smith books.
I spray Riverland Orange with Lemon Rind fragrance around the shop and stand admiring the smell for a while.
I sort all the orders and look up Emily A. Duncan books for a customer. Redo the Christmas books, clean the windows, shelve the newest volumes, and put all the David Eddings back in proper order.
Someone buys a Yates Garden Guide. Someone buys 3 Australian fiction books for a Chris Kringle. I finish The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (brilliant).
A couple admire my Christmas tree through the window: he keeps tapping the glass, possibly thinking the optic lights are responding to his tapping. His wife moves on, and he continues tapping for another minute.
Outside, one car honks another car waiting to turn right. It’s a long aggressive blast. The driver, who is exactly level with my desk, glances into his side mirror and smiles. Then he gives the other driver the finger and very slowly moves around the corner.
The beeping car yells out, ‘Getting ice at Woolworths’. Then they’re all gone, and it’s quiet again.
Two ladies walk past together, and one says, ‘This shop looks very nice’, but they don’t come in.
Two men walk past, and one says, ‘Yeah, well I thought he was serious.’
A young man comes in and asks for any books by Patrick Leigh Fermor, who is a travel writer, and one of the best ever! But I don’t. Then he asks for Jack Kerouac (which I have) and Ilija Trojanow (which I don’t).
I turn on all the fairy lights, clean up the counter, and update the status of all orders.
A child passing with two adults reads my sign out loud, ‘Open. Bookshop.’ Then she says, ‘I don’t like bookshops, but I like some bookshops if they’re open.’
I didn’t see him when he came in: must have come in a slim shadow next to the walking thighs of parents and holding tightly to an adult hand. I know they were in the front room: I could hear the murmuring and the calling out that families do.
‘Where are you, Jack?’
‘Where did Jack go?’
Later, they all came to the counter with a handful of children’s books and a DK Star Wars Reader, book 4, level 5. They paid. They all turned in a soft cotton group for the door.
That was when the child looked back at me and waved. I said, ‘Goodbye. Enjoy your books.’
And he continued to wave in that way children do, the hand going rapidly from side to side at face level, both eyes intensely on me, not looking where they’re going, bumping against mum, banging against the door, still looking back and making the same hand movement and the eyes on me, eyes like polished citrine expanding into dark gold.
‘Come on Jack, watch the door.’ A final soft little bump, the little fluttering hand, and then they were gone.
A customer asked for a copy of The High Cost of Living by Marge Piercy and published by The Woman’s Press. I don’t have it, but I’m interested in it because everything published by The Woman’s Press is excellent. So now there’s two of us need a copy.
I read another chapter of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; a Hawaiian author new to me. It was recommended, and it’s brilliant.
People are sitting outside the bakery, enjoying the warm day and talking very loudly. Here are the topics I’ve overheard so far: the dam in Echunga, the price of fuel, the rain coming next week, where to buy tickets to the Strathalbyn show, why Coles have put their Christmas decorations out already, and if the trains are running this weekend. Two men also discussed heart surgery and how their mate, who isn’t there, ‘isn’t seeing the whole picture’.
It’s warm today. Short sleeves and older people in caravans put on sun hats to go to the bakery. It’s the October Labour Day long weekend, a celebration of the eight-hour working day won for us in the 1850s.
Motorcycles are passing in long noisy chains.
Robert came in for Mysteries of the Dreaming, but it hasn’t arrived. He said about Labour Day that people will celebrate anything as long as there’s a drink in it.
A man came in and asked if I sold tickets to the Strathalbyn show, but I don’t.
A family came in and bought all my Eragon books and one DK Book Of Flight.
Two ladies came in, turned around and left immediately. One said, ‘See you when I’ve got my glasses.’
Someone wanted Anne Cleves mystery books. A family came in needing tickets to the Strathalbyn show. A man outside told someone on his phone that there was no way he was returning to that construction site.
I gave directions to the art gallery (across the road), the public toilets (across the road) and a good pub (up the road and around the corner).
A dog urinated under my window. It saw me through the window but just kept doing it anyway.
I sold a copy of Seven Little Australians. Then I went outside to stand in the sun and feel good.
There’s a man out there trying to get into his car via the passenger side, but it’s locked. He’s rattling away at the door handle looking puzzled and peering through the window into the car interior.
Now he’s standing looking up and down the road. Then a woman appears, coming from the right at a fast pace and slowing down. She’s wearing everything in blue.
‘Where’d you get to?’
‘Around the corner.’
‘I’ve been waiting.’
‘Rubbish. Here’s the keys.’
There are two people wearing masks at the door but not coming in. Just looking through the glass, their faces side by side and close together. She says,
‘What a beautiful place.’ They do come in. She has beautiful leather shoes and a moss grey cardigan and a pink bag, which she abandons on the floor next to Vintage Classics, and he goes over to Art.
An old couple pass my door, going toward the bakery. She’s laughing the whole time. She can hardly breath for laughing. The sounds fade away, but soon they come back. He’s carrying a loaded cardboard tray. She’s laughing and puffing. She says, ‘
‘Not a day for getting married. Too cold if anything.’
He says, ‘What’s it matter?’
She laughs and laughs and has to hold onto the edge of my window. Then she rights herself and they continue on with linked arms.
Inside, the girl with the soft leather shoes has Dante and seems to be holding her breath.
It’s still raining. Mum came in with a chocolate cake and a bag of lemons, and said, ‘Well those shoes are bright indeed.’
I said I was sick of the rain, and she said a bit of rain doesn’t hurt. Then she went out again and over to Woolworths. It takes her a while to get across the road now. She doesn’t stop at the bakery: she doesn’t agree with their scone recipe.
Outside the door, a couple on pause and examining the window display:
‘I’ve never read that one.’
‘I got sick of it.’
A couple of teenage girls: ‘You never know what you’ll find in here. How good is that?’
There’s a fevered discussion going on about Netflix and Tom Hardy. Everyone is damp from the rain. Outside a horn blast across the road. An old man walking along our side calls out, ‘Ok. Just keep your shirt on, pal.’
An old lady paid for her books with an Apple watch, deft and efficient. Then it’s quiet again.
People pass the window: I hear them: footsteps on wet pavement and black moving shapes against the light. I think about it, what my eyes catch and interpret as a person. How the shapes erupt and then regroup when two people meet and pass each other. Then I see bright pink, a beanie, paper bags, a swinging a dog lead with no dog on the end, cars hissing wetly behind them.
In the afternoon, it becomes so quiet, I can hear the clock ticking on the wall next to me. Every now and again a blast of rain.
Ian came in for Carol Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game. Outside the sun came out brief and hot, and across the road a long line of people are standing in the buzzy sunlight. I go outside with my coffee and lean against the fence.
There are nine people and they need to cross the road. Five have walkers and one man has a walking stick. He is too far away. He’s going the wrong way. A lady yells, ‘Get Pops back.’
A young man jogs down to Pops and manoeuvres him across the road, his arm curved protectively around the old man’s back. Rain again, but the sunlight remains, flicking the air with gold and briefly turning the shower into cascading tiny bubbles of light.
The other people are still lined up on the kerb, all talking to each other as they look first one way, then the other and then pausing again to say something to each other.
A man passes me with coffee, and says, ‘That looks like an event trying to happen.’
But they are off, crossing slowly and all in a line. A ute slows and then stops.
They are nearly to the kerb. They are at the kerb and turning toward the bakery, and I have to go back inside. The sunlight is gone. There’s a couple inside waiting for me and one is saying to the other, ‘That history book there, the big one, you can get that for me.’ And he answers, ‘What on earth you want that for?’ And she says to me, ‘My God, great boots.’
We got the news Wednesday, and everyone wanted to talk about it. Or at least mention it. And it was cold and raining again. Christine stopped her gopher at the door and yelled ‘Did you hear?’, and I said I had. She mimicked herself crying and then zoomed on toward the bakery.
Alan had a dilemma with the bakeries: he wanted a pasty and a piece of pavlova and didn’t know which bakery to go to.
‘I don’t want any bakery to see me go into the other bakery.’
‘The Queen has died.’ I said, a bit unnecessarily.
‘Oh God, Sarah will be in a shit now.’
‘She’s bearing up well.’
‘No she won’t. Well I’m going for my pastie. Need a feed.’
But Sarah did bear up well. The Queen had died on her birthday, but she’d already stopped by to tell me that, and to pick up a Sir Alec Guinness biography. She added that the Queen dying on her birthday was an omen of some kind. Robert was here too, disappointed because his order, The Lost Book of Enki, still hadn’t arrived.
He and Sarah stood back to discuss things.
A customer asked me for Mukiwa by Peter Godwin. I didn’t have it. Sarah told Robert that she didn’t hold with that women, Camilla.
Robert said that his family, the Grimshaws, extend directly back to King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and that one day there would be a reckoning for his execution, which never should have happened.
Sarah looked enthralled.
A couple bought a stack of Ben Elton books.
Liz came in for A Fortunate Life and said, ‘Isn’t it awful about the Queen.’
Sarah said that she didn’t think that Charles was in good health.
Robert said he threw the oracle last night and the cards said that Charles would soon succumb to gout, which got all of them in the end.
Anne came in for her cookbook and for tickets to St Andrews on Sunday. A lady came in and bought The Handmaid’s Tale for her sister in hospital. They said that it was sad about the Queen.
Then Robert had to go and reckon with the bank, who were deliberately trying to erase him from their system.
This is how some readers stand in front of bookshelves in the shop. Sometimes, they’ve spoken to me but forget. But that’s ok. I’ve spied spines on shelves, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and forgotten what to do.
It’s when we are most able to let ourselves happen.
Other readers pass through as though they are angry, but they’re not. One old lady bent over a wheeled walker seemed angry. But she wasn’t. She bought Paul Gallico’s Mrs Harris Goes to New York. I said, ‘My mum has this book.’ She said, ‘Oh yes.’ And her daughter, who was there to carry the books, shifted onto another foot and looked at her phone. She was angry. But that’s ok. So am I. So are my daughters.
Outside my shop, on Saturday morning, a couple of motorbikes coughed low and steady. Throaty suggestions of leaving. I hoped so. But they didn’t. They were waiting for mates.
A customer said, ‘Noisy buggers.’
‘What do you think I’m gunna do? This was shouted right at the door. A man urged companions straggling along the footpath, who ignored him. He shouted:
‘Come in, come in, come in. Just want to show this book to yous.’
‘We know you Marley.’
‘Na. Na. No way. Ok I’m going in. Watch this.’
He didn’t come in. He was moving through a pastie as fast as he could. And shouting:
‘I don’t know why you won’t come in. I’m not taking the piss. Real.’
‘What book you getting Marley?
‘Facebook. No. Joking. Just come in and look at this. I just want to show you something.’
‘Not going in, Marley. Just fuck off.’
Marley leaned against the post outside my door and finished his pastie, soothed. The group moved on, Marley trailing them, dancing with both arms going from side to side and his head following, strong and rhythmic.
At the door a new voice saying, ‘Oh, oh, oh, a bookshop.’
‘No, let’s go. You won’t cope.’ This couple in the doorway, unable to agree. ‘I’m going in. I need something.’ He want into the front room. His partner leant against my desk and consulted his phone. He said, ‘If Miles was here, this wouldn’t happen.’ He looked at me, and I agreed. Good old Miles.
The partner returned. ‘Come on you.’
‘What’d you get?’
‘Sword in the Stone. Coffee now?’
‘Yeah.’ They left.
Outside, more shrieking at the window. ‘I want to go to bed and sleep. I lay there with me eyes open all last night.’ Laughter
‘You going in then?’
A group of people looked through the window, bending to peer through the glass. A man said, ‘Is it books? Not much happening in there.’ They moved on.
But books, being alive, have veins and pores and moisture. Mould spores multiply in the lush haven of a book, the paper growing life and disintegrating lusciously, like us. Liquid and angry, rhythmic, and still having the shopping to do and a good series on Netflix waiting.
The cold is losing interest; turning slightly to ease its aching self. People notice it.
They meet outside my door because it’s an intersection; there’s carparks, a bus stop, the train station, toilets, a bakery, Woolworths, two bookshops, a good solid rubbish bins: a small and complete town.
People meet in person, not intending to, but prepared to follow it through. They recognize someone, lean slightly backwards, make a small movement of the head and neck:
‘It’s you. How are you? Not see you for ages.’
‘Oh yeah. Same day, same shit. You know. Sick of the weather. You know.’
‘I know. I know.’
These two moved together past my door and stood at the window. They are older than me. He is asking her things. She points left, then right and grips her purse. I hear her say,
‘They’re only going to take his stitches out. You want a coffee or anything?’
He does. The conversation has warmed. They change directions, moving back the other way, leaning toward each other. He is saying,
‘Oh well, oh well.’ Then they’re gone. A fragment, no, an edge of the vast.
Then, just voices. I’m busy and can’t look up. But it’s a song of consolation in two parts, but I could only hear one part.
‘Ohhhhhhhhh yerrrrrs. Ok. Oh I know.’
‘Ooooohh ok. Omg. Goodness.’
Then silence. Then fresh strong new voices: two men with iced coffees, ‘Fuuuuuugn hell. What a pair of fugn morons.’
Then an ambulance siren coming past and a pair or travellers coming through the door, and one saying, ‘They’re second hand books, but that doesn’t bother me.’ And she asked me, ‘Are these second hand books?’ and I said they are, and she said, ‘Well that doesn’t bother me.’
Behind them, two old men walking side by side past my door, one holding the shoulder of the other, and both of them rocking from side to side but making progress anyway.
Sarah dropped in to tell me that phones are going up, ‘Someone bought one for $150 the other day. Ridiculous.’
She told me that politicians give her the shits and that Scott Morrison has made a mess of things. She likes the bit of sun that’s coming through at the moment. ‘But it won’t last.’
A lady asked me if my shop was a library or a shop, and her friend said, ‘No, it’s a bookshop, a second hand bookshop. Don’t be silly.’
A lady said, ‘I want to inhale this music.’ The music was Bill Evans, Peace Piece, way too dense to inhale. But she stood leaning backwards and took the music in through her bones anyway.
‘This GPS is still telling us we’re still coming into Strathalbyn. But we’re right here. ‘Friends shrieked, laughing at technology, which strives, but can’t quite capture what is really happening.
‘I only have the classics now. Everything else is on my kindle.’ A customer, apologetic. No need though.
Two teenage girls clambered behind my counter to get at the Billabong books, Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did. Their mother horrified. ‘What on earth are you doing?’
They said, ‘These are here.’
A good explanation. I approved. They paid with coins, cradling the volumes as young people do because the books are alive full of blood and future, which causes them to cradle the volumes. Lovingly.