I have spent an inordinate amount of my time on this planet in second-hand bookshops. I discovered them as a home-from-home when a teenager, and travel about this land with a map in my head of where the nearest such shop can be found. Quite apart from the endless need to keep up the supply of books to my own shelves, there is the use of the second-hand bookshop as a reference library, as a means of serendipitious discovery, and simply as some form of security. It’s not just the books themselves, but their arrangement on shelves, the ramshackle nature of such shops (books in a second-hand shop do not make the same effort to impress as they did when they were in first-hand locations), and of course the musty smell. The arrival of online services such as AddAll and AbeBooks has not deterred me from frequenting them – I may use an online store if I need a particular title now, but generally I much prefer the happy physical discovery. The quest is as important as the object itself.
Having spent so much time in these places, I have my likes and dislikes. Second-hand bookshops can be sorry places, home as they are to objects that have been rejected, mistreated or neglected. I’m always in pursuit of an elusive ideal – the pre-owned object that by some magical transmutation becomes mine and mine alone. And yet so many annoyances get in the way of finding that perfect book, all too many of them the fault of the previous owner (or owners).
Here’s my list of such petty second-hand book annoyances.
1. The owner’s name written on the flyleaf – ugh, what sort of fool is it who wants to write their name in a book – and then give it away?
2. The donor’s name written on the flyleaf – equally so those books with loving messages from a relative who did not realise that their gift would handed in to the second-hand shop as soon as Christmas was over. You wouldn’t write on any other kind of gift (a pair of socks, an iPad) so why write on a book?
3. Ex Libris and ‘This Book Belongs to’ labels – how ludicrous to have a personalised label and to stick it in the books that you own. How many perfectly books have I come across and had to spurn because someone before him had stamped their ownership on it forever? For children, I can just about understand, but for adults? Such pomposity should have died out years ago (though given the nature of second-hand books, that could actually be the case).
4. Cut corners – all those books with the price removed from the jacket so that the grateful recipient would not know how much had been spent on them. Bad manners masking as good manners.
5. Split spines – there has to be a special circle of Hell for people who break the spines of books to make them easier to read. Such people should never have been allowed to learn to read in the first place.
6. Pages missing – and it’s only after you’ve bought the thing and got to page 200 that you find out …
7. Over-priced – of course I know the correct price for any book ever published in whatever condition, and will huffily put back on the shelf anything that does not match my perfect estimation.
8. Books I already have – a special sort of annoyance, in that I really would like to buy the book, yet it would be absurd to do so. Maybe it is a compulsion to repeat a successful past action.
9. Books put aside that someone else then buys – how can this be? I came across the book, I thought no one will want that so I’ll be back tomorrow and get it then because I’m not sure just now, and I return and someone has bought it. Who? Who else could possibly have wanted it? Who else had the need, or the same taste? How could they be so inconsiderate? Why didn’t I buy it when I saw it? (and so on)
10. Faded jackets – don’t leave your books in the sun, dear previous owner.
11. Foxing – the book is dying, and there is nothing I can do about it.
12. Food stains – nothing can disfigure a book more.
13. Underlining – I tell a lie, finding that someone has written in the book is worse – underlining of key passages, writing ‘Yes!’ in the margin at points you agree with. Sure sign of previous ownership by a student, still with much to learn.
14. Missing volumes in a series – argh, how I going to find the missing one? Even if I found the same edition, it still wouldn’t fit in properly.
15. Folio Society – presumably there are people out there who purchase Folio Society books and think they look good on the shelves. Then they realise their mistake, dump them in the second-hand shop, where no one ever touches them again.
16. Book society reprints – all those book society reprints sold as special offers through magazines, produced by Guild Publishing, Purnell Book Services and the like. I known they look exactly like the real thing, but they’re not. I know I’m being snobbish about it, but the simple fact of the matter remains. Sorry.
17. Vanity publishing – the puzzling this is, who acquired them in the first place before disposing of them?
18. Faber paperbacks – so badly bound; the publisher seems never to have considered how the books were to be opened. Stick to the hardbacks.
19. Library stamp – a book stamped as belonging to a library is no longer a real book. Ditto school books.