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January 6, 2009

Thoughts about used books

(Via Bookninja): Should we be ashamed of buying used books online? The article discussing secondhand sellers who work through sites like amazon specifically, where you can get a book for a penny plus the shipping/handling costs. I have used amazon second-hand sellers to purchase books, though usually as a last resort because a) the book I wanted was available nowhere else including the library, and my local bookshops or b)I was a student and couldn’t afford it otherwise (and also couldn’t find it in my local bookshops. I always looked first, never missing out on a reason to visit a local bookshop of course, and also because once the shipping/handling was involved, a used book online or off was about the same price). I would suppose that buying new books this way (incl. review copies, which are often available before the book is even in stores) is more than a little tacky, however. But then it is only in the past two years that I’ve become so privileged to be able to spread my bookish dollars so lavishly– not everybody can afford to drop $40.00 on a hardcover in order to feel (deliciously) smug about doing the right thing.

A bookninja commenter makes the very good point that using the library at the very least would provide authors (in Canada) with a small amount of money through Public Lending Rights— nothing a writer could live off of, but it’s the principle.

The problem is not with used books, however, but rather the emptiness of the online exchange. The NY Times article makes a comparison between such exchanges and Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, Hanff’s “classic account of a woman in postwar New York who bought her books from a London shop she never saw” noted as being “ahead of its time.” But the whole book captures the rich exchange between Hanff and the booksellers at Marks & Co. Antiquarian Booksellers, who encouraged Hanff’s book buying habits for years and years, supplementing her own requests with their recommendations– in short, doing what local used bookshops are meant to do, which is fostering a literary community, albeit via epistle. Local is a decidedly a relative term, and Hanff’s story is not the same at all.

I enjoyed a piece on the Guardian blog last week about Britain’s charity bookshops. Suggesting it lessens the compunction of depriving authors of the royalties if you know a few quid is going to Oxfam instead. The article noting the impeccable organization of most of these shops, the skill of their clerks at spotting a special book’s value. There is a charm to their shelves, which will always feature a copy of Hilary Mantel’s Fludd. When I lived in England, I was an avid browser, and found many a treasure that brought me to the till. And I feel that authors did ultimately benefit from my purchases, or at least the ones who’re still publishing did, because these shops gave me a route to their discovery and so many of them I’m devoted to now.

Are there any cousins more distant than new books and used ones? One eventually becomes the other, of course, through a certain evolution, but takes on a new kind of value with the change, will become a different kind of cherished. New books have their crispness, their cleanliness, and their smell– their margins at least are a tabula rasa, and a reader can feel like an intrepid explorer venturing out to see the world. Whereas used books wear their history on their pages, with their stains, their own peculiar smells, and stray hairs stuck inside. The names written in and then crossed out on the inside cover suggesting the hands that may have flipped through these pages, the people who might have read them. Suggesting all the readers in the world.

Any reader with integrity will understand that used books have their place, that new books have quite another one, and the problem really isn’t the system at all. Rather, the problem is these supposed “sheepish” bargain hunters who keep bargain hunting anyway, and whose articles should probably be headlined instead, “I’m cheap and a bit of a wanker.”

2 thoughts on “Thoughts about used books”

  1. Daniel says:

    I actually use used book sales to publish new books: the used book side of my business is the only thing keeping Biblioasis and CNQ afloat. Nor am I the first to do so. In Canada Hugh Anson Cartwright, William Hoffer, Michael Harris and others have used finances from used bookselling to fund a publishing program. BookThug does the same thing.

    Speaking of which, time to go catalogue…

  2. Ferd says:

    I love used books, but only if I am the one who has used them up. I like seeing the stains, the notes in the margin, the bus transfer-slash-bookmarks forgotten among the pages, I know when, where, how my book became what it is and it reminds me of those times. Someone else’s stains and folded down corners make me uncomfortable, as though I’m rifling through their private affairs.

    Also there is a used bookstore in downtown Ottawa that has a very disturbing odour (like a cross between sulfur and burning rock candy) and I believe it has traumatised me vis-a-vis used books.

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