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Secondhand Wonderland: The World of the Used Book

Secondhand books and the emporiums they inhabit affect book lovers in different ways. In this four-part PopMatters special section, we step inside the world of secondhand books and demonstrate the diversity of the experiences it contains.

Edited by Nikki Tranter / Produced by Sarah Zupko

Stay tuned each Wednesday for the next four weeks as we unveil two new essays in this series.

“I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins. I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading pages someone long gone has called my attention to.” So wrote Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road, the definitive novel about the lure and grip of used books. Hanff knew the power of the musty book smell, the red-pen underlines, the bent-down pages that meant someone, somewhere marked that spot as the phone rang, the baby cried, or the clock ticked well past bedtime.

The secondhand book is more than merely a bargain for the book lover. It’s a cross-cultural, inter-generational link between readers. A torch-race, of sorts, with batons passed in all directions, from the collector to the student, the casual reader to the obsessive.

Secondhand books and the emporiums they inhabit affect book lovers in different ways. The romantics love the inscriptions from Nancy to John, while collectors will peruse shelves for hours looking for works entirely untouched. Students love a cheap copy of Fall semester’s Marquez text, while the book-addicted who spends every free weekend road-tripping to every Salvos store within reach will grab two copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude because three bucks is just such a good price.

In this PopMatters special feature section, eight writers—each their own unique breed of book-lover—step inside the world of secondhand books and demonstrate the diversity of the experiences it contains. Kirby Fields describes the small town store that went from temporary linger-spot to provider of his childhood education. Erika Nanes explains the careful process of date selection based on a man’s handling of his used texts. Diane Leach praises those flyleaf inscriptions, Deanne Sole dissects the world of the St. Vincent de Paul charity store, Justin Dimos reveres the famed Caveat Emptor, while Rob Horning, David Pullar, and Ian Mathers take business-like approaches to the subject, breaking down the secondhand bookstore’s fiscal concerns (among other things).

And, so, as we progress further into this age of computer correspondence, hypertext publishing, and the Amazon Kindle, those of us who agree so romantically and feverishly with Hanff that the secondhand book can be art, as valuable for its subject matter as its personal history, we need our used book dealers, our Book Barns, Salvo stores, and library sales. As technology looms about our precious paper and binding, we need more than ever our bargains and our gems, our diamonds buried in the clutter. Most of all, we need that sensation that we’re rescuing something from forced obscurity, that the phrase “pre-loved” need not forever be attached to any one book, regardless of age or condition.

—Nikki Tranter

Tuesday, July 8 2008

Let the Buyer Beware: Bookstore Caveat Emptor Will Not Go Quietly Into That Good Night

Thirty-seven years and still going: Justin Dimos dissects Bloomington's historical secondhand bookstore.

Saint Vinnie

Deanne Sole journeys Melbourne's charity outlets, exploring the fundamentals of the down under St. Vincent de Paul outlet: Bargains, surprises, drunks.

Tuesday, July 1 2008

Book Arbitrage

Joan Didion once wrote, "the hippies scorn money -- they call it bread." Rob Horning explains how best to reap the benefits of the secondhand bookstore's cash-or-credit system.

The Delicate Ecology of the Used Bookstore

You know, it's not easy rummaging through your trash. Ian Mathers takes a look at the secondhand bookseller's world from the inside.

Tuesday, June 24 2008

The Book Barn

Kirby Fields revisits Joplin, Missouri's Book Barn, and poses the question: What does it mean to be the cultural center of a community that has no culture?

The Dust Test

Let's face it: the way that someone interacts with a used bookstore suggests some things about how he will interact in other, slightly more intimate venues... Erika Nanes judges her potential dates by the way they handle their secondhand books.

Tuesday, June 17 2008

Rates of Exchange: The Law of Conservation of Literature

"What is a hardcore book buyer of simple means to do when faced with the discovery that books have effectively consumed all available space?" David Pullar explores the book culler's dilemma that is Cash vs. Store credit.


Secondhand bookstores are about more than literary treasures. As Diane Leach explains, they contain personal histories that connect readers through the ages.

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