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.
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.
After closing up the shop last night I went over to Woolworths and ran into George at the end of the international cooking aisle. I was going for soya sauce.
He was standing with a modest basket of goods and a walking stick. I looked at the walking stick.
Behind him, three people clustered over a shopping trolley: two women and a man. They were fervent. The man, who a sweater hood over his eyes, was saying that he contacted Woolworths yesterday and they told him there was a three day wait. They exchanged significant looks.
George moved closer to me and raised his walking stick. ‘My God, I’ve had health things.’
I asked him, ‘But what have you been reading?’
He said, ‘Barbara Kingsolver. A giant. And you?’
I said, Evelyn Waugh.’
‘My God. A giant. What else?’
I said, ‘The Baron in the Trees.’
He said, ‘Calvino? My God. A giant.’
I said, ‘Albert Camus. The Plague.’
George leaned back and put his basket on the ground. The trio behind him were discussing salad. The man said, ‘Why the fuck is there no lettuce? And try and get oats.’ He balanced on the edge of the trolley with his feet on the rungs. The women agreed, nodding and nodding.
A lady next to me dropped a pack of instant noodles and apologised. A man walked gently behind us, leading a lady by the hand. He stopped at Pappadams. He said, ‘You love these Ettie.’ But she didn’t answer.
George said, ‘Camus. A giant.’
‘I hated him in high school.’
‘High school. My God.’ We agreed about high school and moved together to be out of the way of school children with wet shoes carrying twisties and coke to the registers. A man with a ponytail and wearing thongs said, ‘sorry mate’, to me because he needed sesame oil and I was in the way.
George said, ‘What else? What else are you reading? What about the shop? Are you still there?’
‘I am. It’s ok. But you know how slow I read.’ Then I remembered something: ‘I read Fleur Jaeggy.’
‘My God, who? Who is it? I’ve never heard of her.’
To find a find unknown to George was impossible. But I’d done it. I threw the bottle of soya sauce into my basket triumphant. The trolley trio looked at me. A lady up the aisle said into her phone, ‘It’s the best air conditioner in the country.’
I looked at George and said, ‘My God George. Fleur Jaeggy’s a giant.’
He breathed, ‘Really.’
‘She’s Swiss, but she writes in Italian.’
George thumped him walking stick on the floor. The trolley trio looked at us again. A lady looked over from Indian cooking sauces. I saw she had Tandoori and Madras, one in each hand. I needed them too.
‘She wrote These Possible Lives.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s three squashed biographies of three of the biggies: Thomas de Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob.’
“I don’t know Schwob. Who’s he? And what do you mean by compressed?’
‘Thinned out. Spare. Carved with a potato peeler. But it works.’
‘My God. How?’
‘Don’t know. But she writes about each of them. Who were they? I don’t know, but maybe I do now. They wrote things. Each biog is a slice. Cut with a razor blade. That’s what they say about Jaeggy: that she writes with a razor blade.’
‘My God.’ George banged his walking stick again. A family with three giant packs of cornflakes in a trolley full of mostly toddlers in beanies all looked at us.
‘George, you never saw such a book. You can read my copy. You’ll die.’
A couple passed us the end of our aisle, and the women said, ‘Get me some fetta, babe’, and the man turned back toward the refrigerated products aisle without looking up from his phone.
‘George, I have to go.’
‘See you soon.’
‘My God, yes.’
We parted, and I moved to the 12-item only checkout and waited behind a lady telling the cashier that the eggs in her carton had gone off.
There’s a couple of families in the front room of the shop, nicely tangled and knotted, as families tend to get when they’re relaxed and warm. I like to listen to them. This little question was flung.
‘Do you know how much pages there is in this dog book?’
Someone answered, ‘Mmmm.’
There was a soft clatter: books falling.
‘I want the first Goosebumps.’
‘I want Selby.’
‘Does that say 3080?’
‘Brian, leave the pram alone.’
‘You read this, Helen?’
‘Long time ago. Give us a look.’
‘Taylor. Is that where they go? Looks wrong.’
A parent wandered out with a paperback clamped under one arm. He consulted his phone. A child followed, holding the parent’s hand, swinging from it, leaning in, clamping an ear to the parent’s thigh and walking easily, a delicate and bent stalk. The father rested the paperback on the child’s head. She smiled.
‘You ready, Troy?’
This family left with an old soft copy of Animal Farm, held carefully in anticipation, and which had recently balanced briefly on a child’s ageless and silky thistledown hair.
The family left in the front room continued buzzing softly.
‘Does this say three thousand and eighty?’
‘Maybe. Look at the numbers.’
‘It says 38.’
‘I think so, too.’
‘Can I get it?’
The child emerged with the book. They held it up to me with two hands: an offering.
I asked for the necessary $3. The child had the coins. We exchanged the necessary courtesies:
‘Enjoy your winter reading.’
I watched them leave, a family, a nub of 3, moving in and out of each other’s thoughts faster than any forlorn and hopeful technology. The child was showing the book to the parent; the child’s face was unable to hold a shape, the jaws compliant and full of heat, trying to find an outline for the significance of the purchase; the bliss of carrying home a bliss.
The family collided with itself in the doorway. A bandaid came away from someone’s small wound and lay flat and spent on the mat. The mother said, ‘Come on,’ and they sailed clumpily out. In the pram, I saw a tiny foot raised straight up; a flag.
Come into the shop with extra muscles and more blood than other people. Come in grinning. Eyes sparking humorous energy. Can get down to the bottom shelves even when balancing hot coffee; the bottom shelves are fun. They get the music I’m playing, sometimes executing a few imperceptible dance steps next to Biographies.
When the sound of motorbikes shaves the air away from the inside of the shop, the coffee people don’t notice. Coffee is a hot fragrant cushion. The young couple nursing steaming hot coffee look at me and nod happily. There’s another family in here too this morning, flushed and fresh from cold grass and junior soccer. They are on their way to get coffee.
One of their children bought a book about chocolate to the counter. His two golden coins were hot clutched. He handed them to me, hot, clutched, melting.
A smaller girl appeared at the counter, just her face. Then a five-dollar note flapped onto the counter in front of me.
Then her book poked up slowly and was laid next to the five dollar note: Lego Star Wars. I gave her back a coin and her eyes widened, then softened.
The coffee people cross and re cross the floor, going from room to room beaming light, carrying Ernest Hemingway and Chaucer. Reaching for Johnathon Swift, The coffee illuminating and warming sudden new interests.
I can hear children quarrelling smally in the back room.
Now the green grass soccer family are leaving, everyone with a carefully chosen book, and mum with a paper bag, a newspaper, her book, and a son burying his head into her stomach as they bundle through the door and into the cold which isn’t cold for them.
The coffee people continue, ‘What about the collected works of Charles Dickens..?’
‘We’ve got most of them.’
She nods and dives at the lower shelves. Something else.
Sometimes customers are so quiet, I forget they are there. They’re in danger of being locked in, something that’s happened in bookstores before. But never here (yet). People can be silent when it’s necessary.
Browsers of books are always moving; it’s just that you can’t see the movements; imperceptible downloads of information and ideas so astonishing, that on the outside the reader appears as though paralysed. They move from shelf to shelf, giving back only delicate breath, and sometimes not even that.
An arm reaches. A finger touches a spine, asking something. The book is grasped and held, examined. Rejected. Or, held while the reader’s head tilts back, giving ceiling to the eyes, which need it because the memory they are interrogating is too large for this small shop.
Sometimes the paperback is placed under one arm and carried softly along.
Readers gaze into long barely lit thoughts which are ignited and hiss briefly before going out again, sparked by pictures on covers, images on spines, the dry smell of paper, the thick loving waist of a paperback no longer new, the cough of an opening sentence that you remember icily from high school.
Small children are the stillest. All the action happens in the small roaring rooms of their minds. Sometimes their eyes go wide and their lips compress. Then back to normal, all in a second. Once a child shook his head sharply as though trying to dislodge something back into the book.
Some readers press hands to hearts while they read. Others go up on toes and down again. Men jangle keys and coins and say, ‘HA!’ to the page. Readers come and tell me what they just found, and others place their books before me apologetically, as though admitting inferiority of choice. There’s no such thing.
Sometimes readers just gaze at a book, neither touching nor opening the covers. Why? What are they thinking? They might turn their heads just slightly, and that’s all.
Robert came in. I was talking with someone else, a fabulous pair from Clayton, but I saw Robert outlined against the brightness outside the door, and I knew it was him: he has a spiky electrocuted outline and eyes like gimlets.
The pair from Clayton left on a bark of humour. We’d been talking about vaccinations. He reckoned he’d been vaccinated with the Calicivirus, but she said that was rubbish. That was when Robert loomed up behind them like a bolt of electric heat from Tutankhamen’s tomb, which was precisely what he was there to talk about.
He tapped the counter and gave me a list of books to find. He is currently reading Zecharia Sitchin. We discussed the possibility of getting the books. He said obscurely, ‘Imagine people thinking money is the thing. Don’t they know it’s books?’ We laughed darkly over anyone thinking money is the thing. Then he said, ‘Leave them alone. Best they keep thinking that. Leaves more books for us.’
Then we became hilarious. Robert laughed his high pitched laugh. It’s a thin voltage, admirable and richly unhinged. People turn around.
Behind Robert I saw Russell looking through the window, and behind him, a brisk lady who called out, ‘Hello there!’ in foghorn font causing Russell to jerk toward the window and nearly collide with the cold glass.
‘Very good thanks.’
In front of me, Robert continued on. ‘I’m getting Herman Hesse. He’s significant and I’ve only got The Glass Bead Game. I need all the rest.’
We googled Herman Hesse. A noble prize winner.
Robert always utters really and wow in reverent deep tones, which drop deeper as he talks. Suddenly I, too, am desperate to read Herman Hesse.
I ask, ‘How did you find him?’
‘Don’t know.’ We look at each other and Robert laughs, high pitched and lunatic, and people turned around. Then we settle down to the real business of the day, which is criticising people who don’t read and Telstra in that order.
Behind Robert, a tradesmen in orange and blue strides toward my door, grabs the handle and swings it competently open. But we are not the bakery, and he reverses, turns skilfully, lifting a phone to his ear at the same time.
Robert continues. ‘I wouldn’t mind a copy of The Master and Margarita’, and I promise to comply. Two ladies have bloomed fragrantly behind him, and he straightens up to leave, courteous.
‘Ok, see you later.’ He is briefly outlined in the doorway. Then gone.
There are two rectangular bookshelves in the front of the shop, side by side and shoulder to shoulder, bone to bone. The books are not related. But they still get on because they’ve been shelved so precisely that they must. They take up and face out, exact squares of meaning. Customers say, ‘This looks nice.’
I think they’re referring to order. Order is nice right now. When you open the door to the shop, there’s a big new free space. We moved the counter back out of the way. I prefer to be out of everyone’s way. You can get your pram in now. The space is bordered and held by bookshelves holding all kinds of possibility. That’s what I call it because you can get in the door so easily that the rest of the shop seems possible. My assistant, Callie, came in and saw the new arrangement for the first time. She said, ‘I like.’
The books sit tight and obedient. But their contents don’t. There are all kinds of strange books sitting there looking at the visitors coming in. When visitors come in, they move their heads from side to side, fast and interested. Then they say, ‘This is nice.’ They look carefully and softly at simply everything. Spike Milligan. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Blinky Bill. A Biography of Judy Dench. Longfellow. Asterix and the Soothsayer. European Trains in the 19th Century. We’re Going On A Bear Hunt. Rabindranath Tagore: The Complete Writings.
‘Just get it over and done with…..like…hello?’ I overheard this from two teenagers passing the door and discussing getting things over and done with. The girls walked shoulder and shoulder, heads together, dragging schoolbags.
A man came strongly through the door into my new space and then backed out again. He said, ‘Zen moment. Sorry. Books here. Sorry.’
When visitors come in together, they stand for a little while and whisper to each other. There’s no need to whisper though. It’s not a quiet place. Books are not quiet.
A mother and child browsed a while and left looking happy. The mother had bought The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. She said, ‘I want to cry’. At the door the child said, ‘I’m going to die from holding in my pee’, and the mother screamed with laughter. I thought that was good.