Second Hand Books, Virginia Woolf
Comments 35

Why I Love Second Hand Books…And You Should Too.

You should only ever buy second hand paperbooks.

Actually, that’s not true. There are two very specific occasions when I buy brand new paperbooks.

The first is, quite obviously, when I buy orange Penguin classics. Buy them brand new every time. I mean, c’mon, they cost the same as a second hand book anyway, and they’re so gosh darn cute. Don’t believe me? Check this out.

IMG_4017I’m working on my collection, it’s Penguin-carrying-book-store gift certificates on my Christmas wish list this year for sure. Take note.

The only other time I buy brand new books is at airport book stores. I can hear you thinking, are you mad? Books are twice as expensive at airports. It’s the law of supply and rip-off. But for me, there is something so exciting about buying books in airports. Generally, you’re killing time in an adrenaline fuelled haze, your mind locked onto your impending trip. And let’s be honest, the trip is always way more exciting when you’re waiting for it than when it’s actually occurring, right?

So, despite the fact that I always have at least two books on me when I travel, I revel in the luxury of airport-book-shopping. It’s a holiday expenditure that I always allow myself, and hang the cost.

But other than this, I always buy second hand. Why? Let me tell you.

1. They already exist. 

I love that whole e-reader/paperbook debate. I particularly love it when e-reader fanatics delve into the whole ‘environmentally friendly’ argument. You know the one: It’s waaaaaaay more environmentally friendly to use an e-reader!! Think of all the trees we’re saving by not reading paperbooks!!

Yes, because e-readers are made out of 100% pure-organic-bio-degradable-recycled-reusable-cost-effective-guaranteed-never-to-break-parts. I mean, once you buy an e-reader you have it for life, right? It never breaks down, you never have to upgrade it, there is never a newer model. And if, god forbid, it did break and you had to throw it away, those bits of metal and plastic are going to decompose safely and organically aren’t they. As opposed to the paper which books are made of, which is going to hang around for the next few millennia.

It’s a great argument, isn’t it.


But on the off chance that you get a real fanatic who will continue to argue against the printing of books as an environmental hazard, it’s always nice to throw the second hand argument in their faces. These books ALREADY EXIST. They aren’t being chain sawed down and mulched up and squeezed out and printed each time we buy one. They are already here, as opposed to the latest e-readers which people are buying before they even come into existence. They are as environmentally friendly as it is possible to be. And when they sadly reach the end of their long and industrious life, they can be recycled as wrapping paper, lampshades, art projects, whatever. Try turning your Kindle into wrapping paper. I dare you.

2. They have history.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of avid readers have read these self-same pages before you. How awesome is that. The second hand book you hold has potentially made its way around the world, stuffed into backpacks or loaded into crates. It has probably been bought and sold more times than it cares to remember. It might have been given as a gift or bought for a school project, left behind in a café or swapped at a book exchange. And each time it moves on, it gathers into itself a little more history.

Some of my favourite books are ones that have inscriptions written in them, little memories that you will never find in a brand new book or an e-reader. Sometimes they are funny, sometimes they are sad, sometimes they are nothing more than a name claiming ownership over something that they no longer own.

Here are my absolute favourites:

Dear Anna, 
Third date!!
Tony xo

Seriously. How adorable is that. I have never before heard of someone giving another person a book as a gift for a third date, but I think it should happen more often. He was obviously over the moon about it, judging from those exclamation points, but the fact that I own this book now, not Anna, probably doesn’t bode well for their fourth or fifth dates. Nevertheless, each time I open Ian McEwan’s Atonement I am reminded of the exciting possibilities of young love. Thanks Tony.

This one is even more beautiful, if that’s possible.


Happy birthday – 1993
Just a little something to make you smile when I’m not around to do it myself.
Nicki xx

So lovely, so personal and so poetic. Was she his friend, his sister, his girlfriend, his lover? I’ll never know, but she obviously cared enough for him to buy him an awesome book, and inscribe it. I can’t even remember where I picked up this copy of Ben Elton’s Stark, but I’m sure glad I did.

Anna, Tony, Adam, Nicki: I have no idea who you are or where you are, but I own a little piece of your history. I’ll take good care of it for you.

3. They are bloody cheap.

If there is one thing that I am always more than happy to spend money on, it’s books. They’re durable, they’re entertaining, they’re beautiful. Still, I’d rather own more than less, so buying second hand is definitely the most cost effective way to go. Let’s face it, books are getting crazy expensive. I was browsing in a Collins book store the other day, and checked out a lovely edition of Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram. In paperback. For $45. No thank you. I would rather hold onto my second hand copy which is battered and worn, but which I picked up from a second hand book store a few years back for $13.

Later that same day I popped into our local Book Exchange, a second hand book store on the main street of town. I’m thankful that I did, because as it happens it is closing down. Whether this is because of rising rent prices or decreasing book readers I am not sure, but it made me sad. Until I saw the sign in the window: ALL BOOKS MUST GO! MAKE AN OFFER!

I was off like a shot. And here is what I picked up.

IMG_6126[1]And yes. That is a hardback copy of Bryce Courtenay’s Four Fires, currently retailing on Amazon for around $40. I calculated the (second hand) marked prices for this bad-ass bundle of books. It came to just under $70. I asked if I could make an offer, and when I was given the go-ahead, I plucked a solitary $20 note from my purse. I was prepared to go into a bartering battle, my training in Asia giving me confidence, but before I could speak the lady nodded her head, grabbed my $20 note from my hand, and thrust my books into my arms. I walked down the street practically singing.

The last time I was this happy was when I picked up a hard back copy of Bryce Courtenay’s  The Persimmon Tree for $5 from The Salvation Army. You just can’t get better value than that.

This is a mere shadow of why I love second hand books, but you get the idea. They are wonderful little snippets of literature that are far more worthy and majestic than their newer counterparts. And don’t even get me started on their technological new cousins. When e-readers are beeping ‘low-battery’ around me I will smugly pluck my trusty second hand book from my bag, settle back and crack open those delicious smelling pages. I’ll pause for a moment to ponder the path that this little collection of papers has taken to end up in my lap. I’ll read the inscription and wonder where those people are now. And I’ll use all my leftover money to buy myself a gin and tonic or two.

Because nothing goes together better than a gin and a second hand book.

Second hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes…lack.

– Virginia Woolf


  1. I couldn’t agree more on all of these points, but still I am on the verge of buying a Kindle…for one reason only – space. I’m rapidly running out of storage space for my beloved (mostly second-hand) book collection, and have learned the hard way that some physical books are just too large for my poor handbags (as the growing number of torn straps will attest!)

    • Haha too true Aspiring Scribbler! 🙂 You’re off the hook if you own a large collection of second hand books. The space thing is certainly an issue.

      • I couldn’t give you an accurate estimate off the top of my head, but there must be about 300+ books on my shelves, and I’d say probably 80-85% of them were pre-loved… The rest were either gifts or childhood favourites. I rarely buy new books, and only if I can’t wait any longer to find it second-hand.

      • Wow, awesome stuff! That is a truly inspiring collection. I am far from that, simply because I have spent the past 8 years shifting from state to state. Now that I’m settled I’m determined to have my own library!!

  2. It’s the same for CD’s with me, I love love love second hand books! I also love leaving them somewhere once I have read them a few times for someone else to pick up. Lovely post 🙂

    • Thanks! I do that too, especially when I’m traveling. I would leave them in hostel bedrooms, because it always made my day when I checked into a new room and found books there.

      • Ah that is lovely! Yes I left a Bill Bryson book in Amsterdam in a hostel and inscribed it, hoping for someone to read it and pass it on 🙂

  3. We don’t have many second hand book stores in my area…in fact unless it’s a antique book store they’re as hard to find here a …. well kangaroos. But, my local library ever so often cleans out it’s surplus (you know four copies of gone with the wind 1985 edition) at 1 euro a copy…and I’ve gotten some fantastic books that way! I do use e-books too, mostly when I travel, lighter, but it’s hard to lie down in bed and read on one’s net book (don’t have a reader).

    • Wow, that’s cool! I still have to go and join my local library, I always mean to and then somehow get distracted! Yes, I can imagine that the readers (or whatever else) can be a little impractical at times. Don’t get me wrong, lugging books around on holidays isn’t overly convenient, in fact, it’s downright bad for your back. Yet every holiday I still do it. Call me crazy.

      • Oh I did too until about a year or two ago, nothing crazy about it, but as you say, it’s bad for the back 🙂

  4. Michelle says

    Those inscriptions are lovely; thanks so much for sharing. Once, I bought a used book and found the business card for a hospice three-quarters of the way through – chilling, but also very humbling. Unlike the previous owner, I was able to finish the book.

    • Wow, that is very sad. Still, it’s nice to know they were reading a good book in their last days. And I’m glad you finished it for them. So much history in second hand books isn’t there.

  5. We are fortunate to have a tremendous used bookstore in the old opera house in the heart of our town. Many happy hours (and dollars!) spent there.

    I sympathize with your airport book-buying! In addition to doing just that, though, my husband has discovered that many airports now participate in a system of trade-in discounts for books bought, so he often ‘cycles’ his book buying at airports now and saves money but still gets new reads for his travels. Win-win. 🙂

    • In the opera house??! That sounds incredible! I have never seen a trade in system at airports,but in saying that I have never looked or asked! Thanks for the tip, I will have to investigate next time I travel!

  6. I love the history of used books, one of my favorite pastimes is just to browse in stores selling antique and used books. The notes and inscriptions inspires me to write something in my own books before I give them away. Because that is what I do. The books I get to own, in different ways, have four outcomes. If I love the book, but would not read it again, or find it would inspire somebody else, I leave it when somewhere or give it to someone. If I know this is a long lost friend, the book will go into one of my numerous bookshelves. If it is a book that gives me new insight, I pile it on my desk to blog about it later. If it is rubbish, I just throw it away! You could do neither on kindle…

    • Exactly! Books are so versatile aren’t they. Often when friends come over they marvel at my bookshelves, and spend many happy hours picking out books to read. Often the books don’t quite make it home again, but I am always glad that I have helped a friend discover an awesome book.

  7. When I worked in a used bookstore, I always thought it was awesome when I found letters and other assorted tidbits that people used for bookmarks. I must admit, out of my 9 shelves of books, I’ve maybe only bought about 10 of them brand new.

    • That’s awesome! I really want to work in a used book store too, although to be completely honest the ones in my town aren’t amazing. You must have a very cool collection of literary memorabilia in the form of letters and bookmarks. That would be a cool collection to start!

  8. My favorite used books are the obscure, unknown to me, books that look like they have been read hundreds of times. I feel like I am reading a sacred book passed on from generation to generation. Great post!

  9. Reblogged :). Second hand books have such majesty to them, I feel like I take in books like they are orphaned children in need of understanding and a nice home!

  10. used book stores, libraries and thrift/garage sales – heaven sent places to linger. if only time would be more generous. ☺

  11. Terrific post Jayde- you really hit the nail on the head as to why books will continue to be around-there is a lot of us out there who feel the way you do!

  12. The Penguin classics in the bookstores here are yellow.
    I used to buy a second-hand books a lot. But, since the earthquake last year, I promised myself to never get another print because I couldn’t bring them with me when disaster strikes and I always love my books.
    Of course, given that I recently purchased Benjamin Button, it’s clear I can’t completely keep that promise.

  13. Jayde – thanks for visiting my blog, Born Again Writer.

    I couldn’t resist reading your article. You’ve presented a very convincing case in favour of paperbooks. Second-hand books have always been a delight for me too. I practically grew up in second-hand book and record exchanges. Currently, I’m volunteering once a week for the British Heart Foundation. I rarely leave the shop without having purchased at least one book!

    I hope there will always be paperbooks. However, I’m also glad for the new technology. After all, without it, I wouldn’t be connecting with you now! And it’s great to so easily connect with people who share your interests.

    The Paperbook Collective looks interesting. I’ll definitely check it out. 🙂

  14. There are other, purely practical considerations, of course…. as room decor a wall full of much loved books is far better than paint… and you can’t beat an overstuffed bookcase for sound and heat insulation….which, of course, are all very eco-friendly arguments…. and may convince me very quickly that I need yet more bookcases…. 😉

  15. Pingback: Reading My Christmas Tree and Other 2014 Resolutions. | The Paperbook Blog.

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