The magic of buying a book used

I’ve always been a proponent of buying used books.  That is, this was true even before I began working for one of the largest used bookstores in the country.  Besides the economical advantages (you can basically afford two books for every one you’d purchase at a regular bookstore), there’s also the romance, mystery and sense of community buying used books fosters among its devotees.

Micah McCrary recently addressed this subject over at one of my favorite book blogs, Bookslut, in his piece A Lust for Lit: On the Romance and Appeal of the Used Book.  McCrary tries to unearth the many reasons why buying used books has maintained its appeal over the years, despite being bombarded with a shrinking reading public and technological innovations such as the Kindle.  While being cheap doesn’t hurt, McCrary continually comes back to the inherent romance of used books:

…books–more specifically used books–have stories to tell that books from chain bookstores simply can’t. They have history and personality, which is exactly what readers are hoping to find in the first place when they take a book off the shelf.

I can’t say I disagree with this assessment.  There is nothing better than leafing through a used book and finding traces of a former reader’s hand, whether that be notes in the margin or a dedication in the front.  Just as Ashley English’s post about heirloom foods on Design*Sponge today pointed out, there’s a certain satisfaction in enjoying items and traditions that have been lovingly passed down.  It makes them more real, more tangible, and more meaningful than any ol’ thing you picked up at Wal-Mart.  Although it may be a bit of a stretch to compare tomatoes and books, used books preserve the lives of former readers just as heirloom apples preserve their own genetic heritage (read Ashley’s thoughts, and I promise that will make more sense).

I had my own romantic fling with a used book last year, a journey I chronicled in the story I wrote for my journalism capstone.  While persusing Ohio Bookstore, one of my favorite bookstores in Cincinnati, I stumbled across A Treasury of the World’s Greatest Letters, a collection from the 1940’s edited by M. Lincoln Schuster.  What caught my attention was an inscription at the front of the book, which was given as a Christmas gift in 1940 to a young woman living in the Barbizon Hotel in New York City.  Swept up in the potential for romance, I researched as much as I could, but found only bare sketches of who this woman could have been.  Still, the experience captured my imagination and introduced me to the world of rare bookselling.  The owner of Ohio Bookstore, a friendly gentleman named Jim Fallon, told me stories of poetry books worth thousands of dollars and–speaking of inscriptions–an Al Capone biography with Everything in this book is a damn lie written in by Capone himself.

Still, I think the benefits of buying used books goes beyond the mystery of wondering whose shelf your James Joyce once graced.  I wouldn’t have imagined this a year ago because that was before I started working at Half-Price.  Half-Price has a small collection of collectible books, but regular, run-of-the-mill fiction and non-fiction is our bread and butter.  These are books that were perhaps used for a semester in the classroom, then sold because frankly, why does a sports medicine major need Jane Austen?  These are the romance paperbacks that have been read and re-read by every old bitty in a five-mile radius.  These are the kids books that are enjoyed time and time again by penny-pinching mothers.  This is where nostalgia falls away, and a very real sense of community is created.   As managers of Barnes & Noble and Borders may know, it’s awfully hard to create community in the ‘burbs.  Mainstream bookstores blend in with the Targets and Wal-Marts, and become just another superstore.  People pass in and out as anonymous shoppers, and these places have to install cafes just so people will stop and stay for longer than 10 minutes.

Although I’m far from being overly idealistic here, I truly believe a Half-Price Books (and other used bookstores) can serve as a mingling place for a community–a place for people to linger, as well as a repository and halfway home for that community’s discarded artifacts.  A vast majority of the books people purchase at Half-Price are sold to us by readers in the same neighborhood.  One woman’s new Jan Karon novel may once have belonged to her neighbor down the street.   In addition, used bookstores like Half-Price serve as valuable recycling centers for books.  For all those looking to be ecologically conscious, used bookstores keep books in circulation so that more people have the opportunities to read for less.  Plus, there’s incentive for people to mingle as well.  When we say it will take 10-15 minutes to make an offer on your books, there’s little else to do but wander around the store and shop.  Plus, our inventory changes daily.  There’s no knowing what we’ll have on the shelves from one day to the next, and even our little suburban store has its own roster of “regular” customers we know by name.  Show me a Borders where that happens.

A lot of e-reader critics are either in the business of selling new books (proponents of the superstore and indies alike), or in the publishing industry.  I’m also an e-reader skeptic, but I don’t foresee much harm being done to the used book market via the Kindle or iPad.  Although human beings will always be attracted to whatever is new and shiny, used book buyers have already proven themselves indifferent to ‘newness’ every time they purchase something dogeared over whatever’s on display at B&N.  Those who will shell out $600 for a Kindle don’t shop at used bookstores anyway.  Those who do–the serious reader looking to get more bang for their buck, the housewife looking for her $2 paperback–understand the value of a used book, and are customers for life.


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