Confession time: I don’t like second hand books

A really thoughtful post about the joys of secondhand books by Prashant over at Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema has prompted me to make this confession. Partly because I feel the need to explain my guilt and partly because I wonder if I am alone or whether this is another one of those “there are two kinds of people” things that life throws at us.

I’ll wait here while you go and read Prashant’s thoughts if you haven’t already done so.

Now…my turn.

I don’t just not like secondhand books. I hate them.

Though in my defence my experience is not really like the one Prashant describes in his post. Perhaps if it had been…

For me books have always been special. Partly because of the escape they offered inside their covers but also because the objects themselves are things I was taught to treat with respect. In the house I grew up in there were only a few books – some my parents had inherited and a few my mother purchased for herself or us kids. They were always shelved nicely, dusted regularly and could only be read if our hands had been washed. Books that came and went – from the library or the annual allocation from school – had to be handled carefully too so that they could be returned in exactly the same condition as they arrived

This set of leather bound classic literature was my grandmother’s, then my mother’s, now mine. This is exactly the kind of thing I have never found in a local secondhand book shop.

I still haven’t quite recovered from the unfortunate incident in which I borrowed a copy of NORTHANGER ABBEY from Liliana’s sister without Liliana’s sister’s permission. In my defence I did have Liliana’s permission but whether she had her sister’s was subsequently questioned. I got  a drop or three of spaghetti sauce on one of the pages. My mum made me borrow money from her to buy a replacement copy then I had to do extra chores to pay mum back. And I wasn’t allowed my weekly library trip for a whole month. Lesson learned.

Although we didn’t have a lot of money my mum tended to go for the library rather than secondhand books. I don’t know if this was due to the dearth of selling establishments in our corner of the world or perhaps she too hated them. I wish I’d thought to ask when I still could. Back in the day you had to pay an annual fee to join our library and everyone who did so treated the books with as much care as my parent taught us to do.

So my first exposure to secondhand books was when I did student volunteering for one of the large charities here. I was tasked with sorting donated items. About half of the items were books which was usually my job. Because who’d give a fashion-challenged 14-year old the task of sorting clothes meant mostly for adults? The bulk of the donated books were badly damaged (rips, tears, missing pages or covers) and many had worrying unidentifiable stains and smells. I don’t know what part of this was worse: that people would allow their books to get into this state in the first place or that they thought so little of others that they would put such rubbish in a charity bin. I do know I cried the first time I was put in front of a pile of these shabbily looked after books.

Later I encountered specialist secondhand book shops that weren’t a neglected corner of a charity shop but still I was not tempted. When I could afford it I would buy a new book, when I couldn’t I’d go to the library. This was especially true after my first trip to America. Back in the late 80’s when bookstores were the size of cathedrals and there were endless aisles of shiny new books that I could afford to buy by the suitcase (book prices in Australia have always been high by comparison). My housemates were unimpressed when I returned from my first overseas foray with a suitcase full of mystery novels rather than the duty free booze and sneakers they had anticipated. My return trips to the US were, ostensibly, to see family but I still recall those days spent in book stores very fondly.

Over the years I have bought the odd secondhand book. Most notably while travelling in the days before kindles were a glint in Jeff Bezos’ eye. The worst thing about backpacking in those days was not having enough room to pack several months worth of reading or enough money to buy new English language books in countries where English is not the dominant language. I think part of the reason I am so fond of Turkey is that it is – or was in the 90’s at any rate – replete with secondhand bookstores that had something other than Barbara Cartland novels for sale in English. But I left all the books in hostels once I’d read them.

I would have liked to be like Prashant. To be seduced by the lure of secondhand books and the stores that sell them. There’s a romance to it that I like the idea of. And it would fit well with my aim to leave less of a waste-filled footprint on our planet. But assuming I will never again be desperate (now that eBooks exist and I can borrow from any library in my state) I cannot imagine ever willingly setting foot inside another secondhand bookshop.

What about you? Do you love secondhand books or hate them? Why?


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13 Responses to Confession time: I don’t like second hand books

  1. haha I’m afraid I am definitely a lover of second hand books. I love how they come with their readership story and I love finding things left inside books from previous users. Unlike you my reading choice would be greatly diminished if I had to rely on my local library and equally given the speed I read books I would be broke if I had to buy all my books brand new. Of course it doesn’t help loving obscure vintage crime fiction. In defense of charity shop books, where I am you can definitely get a good quality of book and I have often come away with many brand new books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do think the situation is different depending on where you are – I do remember being in the UK and finding a great Oxfam shop that had a good selection of second hand books. Here even in the “good” shops you don’t see much in the way of non-mainstream stuff.


  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    I love that ‘photo, Bernadette. I was raised, too, in a home where you took care of books, and you wouldn’t dream of mistreating them, even if they were paperbacks. And I’ve been in places with secondhand books that were badly battered, so I know that feeling. I think there are some wonderful secondhand bookshops (i’ve been in a few) where the books are well loved and you can find some gems. I like the fun of discovery in places like that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. rkottery says:

    EBooks are wonderful (and easier to keep from inadvertent ripping, splashing and dipping into the sauce) but I have to say that I love second-hand books. I like the feel of a well-thumbed book, the occasional mysterious marks of someone else’s presence, haunting it like a ghost. I don’t even mind tatters and tears, as long as the book is readable. Growing up, most of my books were second-hand, even those bought as presents, and so a book with no bends, creases or lavish quantities of sellotape holding in the guts, was more of a novelty than the norm.
    Also, the experience of wandering through the narrow and peculiarly-filed aisles of our local second-hand shop – long gone now – always seemed more exciting and filled with possibility than a stroll through WHSmiths.
    I can certainly appreciate your point of view, however.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jennifer says:

    I love secondhand books. One of my aunts had a secondhand bookshop when I was young, and I was allowed to borrow books (and comics) provided I returned them in the same condition. Sometimes, I’d buy one. But for me it was a treasure house: I could only borrow so many books from the library and my parents couldn’t afford to buy as many books as I wanted to read each week.
    Fast forward forty years. I still enjoy browsing through secondhand bookshops, finding books that were once friends or favoured acquaintances, and sometimes buying them. It’s special to find books that were friends and are now long out of print.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My mum paid extra for ‘unlimited’ borrowings from our library when I was a kid…perhaps that’s why we never needed to look further.


      • Jennifer says:

        I’m fairly sure that our public library didn’t have such a scheme. I was delighted when, aged about 10, I was granted adult borrowing privileges. I remember that the primary school headmaster wrote a letter seeking permission, and my mum had to agree to pay for any damage I might do. I never did damage any books, and after my first couple of visits, the librarians let me wander freely through the stacks. When they realised that I was more interested in, say, the classics than ‘Peyton Place’ they were less concerned about monitoring my every move. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • Our public libraries don’t either Jennifer but when I was a kid – until I was about 14 actually – we didn’t have a public library system where I lived – we had local Mechanics Institutes –
          community run adult education organisations is the best definition I can think of – and they often had libraries associated with them. Our local one was great and really well supported by what would undoubtedly be called the aspirational working class today. It was absorbed by the public library system in the early 80’s.

          I remember the excitement of being granted adult privileges too 🙂


  5. kathy d. says:

    Oh, I never got into second-hand bookstores. When I grew up in Chicago, we went to the library. We occasionally bought books, but those were gifts. The library was a part of my life. Then back in New York, I bought a few paperbacks here and there, but used the library a lot.
    I love the library still, although not as much is available in paper form. I buy books only if I must have a book and the library doesn’t have it.
    But I was brought up to respect books and they were always put back on shelves, unless my father had a stack on the coffee table he was alternating reading.
    And I have reacted with shock when a neighbor put library books on the floor! Or one of my books. I would never think of doing that. Even as a child I put books on the bookshelf in my room.
    I stack them on tables or my bed now, but they’re always well-treated.
    And the few times I’ve bought second-hand books, they haven’t been in great shape or smelled of perfume or cigarette smoke, a no-no for me. A friend told me if I buy a second-hand book to buy a hardcover, less likely to be damaged. And that has proven to be true.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good tip about hardcovers Kathy although we hardly ever get them here – only a tiny fraction of any kind of book is ever released in that format in Australia – mostly we only have the large format paperbacks or the smaller ones.

      I don’t like books that come from smoker’s homes either


  6. tracybham says:

    I had to think over my answer. I love to browse secondhand bookstores (not that we have that many around here) because you never know what you will find. If I have a choice of an old vintage copy of a book over a new reprint I would go for old vintage copy, but sometimes then the print is tiny and hard to read for my old eyes. But for recent, contemporary books, given the option, I would go for the new book over a used copy; but I don’t read a lot of really recent fiction, so sometimes cannot find new copies. And at this point my real choice should be to read from my stacks, shelves and boxes of books and pare the number down to a reasonable amount. I won’t do that, but it is what I should do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting thoughts Tracy. I tend to read more contemporary fiction than classics so it’s much easier for me to buy new. But I still wish I wasn’t quite so allergic to second hand ones


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