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’ve set this out before. Here it is again. Reading is complex. Think Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. Reading’s not watching, and it’s not travel. It’s not something to do. It’s something you become, like fatigued, alert, or in love. This is because a book, once ingested, becomes part of your soft-lining.
Read: because it’s effective. Once read, a text will continue to inform you. It will exist in the muscles around your eye sockets. You cannot remove this new insight. Think That Deadman’s Dance by Kim Scott.
Best to burn books, or ban them, or just not read them, if you want to stay vanilla.
Read: because it’s powerful. Once read, you’re changed. You may not think so. But who can hear their own voice change? You’ll be the last person aware of it. Think The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov.
Read: because it’s enraging. Once a text enters you, you’ll be challenged on a terrible level. This is the level of your own self-you. Think of those books that suggest it’s time to leave the awful struggle on the road. Let it flap back to it’s own necessary family. Think What You Can See From Here by Mariana Leky.
Read: because it’s expansive. Inside, you blow larger, and you won’t be able to restore your old favourite self damning dimensions. Think I Heard The Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven.
Read: because it’s confronting. We’re all recovering from something. Reading prevents our self-denial from becoming too comfortable by allowing comfort. Think Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
Read so you’ll be forced to contemplate an example of precise and dazzling beauty. Think These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy.
Read because it’s comforting. Open your courage flaps and allow in a couple of astonishingly simple but completely new and healing ideas. Think My Goblin Therapist by Morgan Taubert.
Read, because the great texts are written by good solid failing people, and not generated by AI content tools that are sleek with success and without human allergies or proper death. Think A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
Read because we basically don’t know anything. Think The Ugly Tourist by Jamaica Kinkaid.
Read because we basically think we know everything. Think Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.
Read: because the great texts take risks, and they insert tight unnoticed gems of permission into our poor flat salads. Think Mist by Louise M Hewett
Read: because once you’ve experienced the greatest writing, you too will quietly flake that same humility and insight onto your own breakfast table. Think The Vivisector by Patrick White.
You can’t forget. Think Ping by Marjorie Flack.
You’ll be enraged. Think Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin.
You’ll be desolate. Think A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
Think Collete. Think Margaret Atwood. Think Brain Moore and Amitav Ghosh. Helen Garner.
What is power? Tolkien, tell me. Suffering. Baldwin. Anger: Terry Pratchett. Vision: Huxley.
The Odyssey. You think it’s not relevant? Fools. The Very Hungry Caterpillar: we are you.
James Joyce. Sigh.
Of course, a Good Bookshop will put all these books right in front of you so you too can share in the glory. But not in my bookshop because I already took all these books home, and I’m keeping them.
It was strange being at the shop without internet because there didn’t seem to be much to do. And there was very little going on. But this turned out to be wrong.
There were customers all day. Everyone chatted companionably about the outage. Everyone had a theory.
An old lady said she didn’t care that the tower was down because she could still work in the garden, and she bought an Elizabeth George, saying, ‘I’ll pay for this with good old cash!’
Robert, who has never been connected to any internet, didn’t comment on it because he didn’t know about it. He said he’s planning to read every Carlos Castaneda book so he could work through the ongoing problem: are they fact or fiction?
I managed to reorganize my entire counter and clean some windows. Once, outside the shop, a group of young men realized they couldn’t use their phones, holding them up in the air toward the sun. One man said, ‘What are you gunna do?’ and his friend said, ‘Fuck knows.’
A man told me he was with Optus and so his phone was fine: he had internet! And his data had already been stolen, so nothing further to worry about.
Alan noticed that a couple he sees every day each go to different bakeries and reckons it’s because one bakery has better lamingtons than the other. ‘But couples should go to the same place, otherwise you cause problems. That’s how I see it anyway.’ Then he went home: meat to cook and a sleep to find.
I read two chapters of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense. Brilliant and will continue. I showed the book to George who said he’d been looking for it, but I refused to sell it. He bought a book about elephants for his grandson instead.
Someone told me the Facebook chat page about the local Telstra outage is entertaining and informative. ‘If you have Optus. Lol.’
A teenage reader showed me that her phone was working. An older reader who examined the signal on this girl’s phone (while waiting behind her to purchase a copy of Quietly Flows the Don), advised me that technology always works for young people.
Sarah said that the flooding is getting worse. I told her I couldn’t look up the news without the internet and she said that flooding doesn’t need an internet. She also said the British PM is in a bad way.
A lady told me about Roald Dahl: from her head, not from her phone. I thought maybe I could do a bit more of that.
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.
Rain, rain, and more rain, but it’s not that cold. Passers by are not rugged up, and nobody is hurrying along. An older couple, holding hands, stopped to look through the window. He asked, ‘Want to go in?’
She said, ‘Well, no. Not really.’
They continued walking. When I came out my door a little later, they were further down the road going very slowly hand in hand and not minding the steady rain. They were looking around at everything. They both wore thongs and they stopped to look down at a puddle and talk about it.
I watched them cross the road and get sprayed by a passing car and laugh about it.
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.’