Chapter and verse on second-hand bookshops
Thursday 13 June 1996
What is the difference between an antiquarian bookshop and a second- hand bookshop?
Antiquarian books are books that are collected for their oddity, rarity, beauty, binding and so on. Second-hand books are much superior, because they have to be read. There is nothing much else to do with them.
So a second-hand bookseller is superior to an antiquarian bookseller?
In every respect but price, yes.
Are second-hand books cheaper than antiquarian books?
Generally, they are cheaper than any kind of book. It is usually cheaper to buy a good second-hand hardback of a book than a new paperback.
Good heavens. So why don't people always go for second-hand books?
The only plausible explanation is that they are afraid of getting diseases from second-hand books.
Good heavens again. Is it possible to get diseases from second-hand books?
Certainly. An exhaustive study of second-hand booksellers shows that they are more prone than other people to deafness, coughing, frowning, unwillingness to make eye contact, and inability to remember if they have a Humour section or not.
In what way does this deafness show itself?
When you go into a second-hand bookshop and try, but fail, to make eye contact with the owner, you then start looking through the books until you find one that you want. You then look for the price, but either you can't find it or you find three different prices pencilled in, two of which were levied on the last two times the book changed hands, so you say loudly: "What's the actual price of this book?" to which the owner does not reply.
Because he is a deaf git?
Sometimes, but generally the real answer is that if the bookseller preserves a discreet silence, you might agree to pay the higher price out of impatience or sheer embarrassment.
If there are so many second-hand bookshops, why are there no second-hand video tape shops? Surely videos are, for many people, what books used to be. So why isn't there an equivalent resale sector?
Books and videos occupy an entirely different culture. For instance, a book borrowed from a library is something you take home and enjoy at leisure, for two or three weeks. A video is borrowed overnight. It is a cultural one-night stand. Video shops do sell second-hand videos, but they're not called "second-hand", they're called, rather unattractively, "ex-rental". Everything in a video shop is geared up to an evening at home, which is why they also sell sweets, crisps, soft drinks and basic groceries. Everything in a second-hand bookshop is geared to the belief that people have no existence outside bookshops. This may, incidentally, be true. However well you know your local second-hand bookseller, you never bump into him in the street. Maybe he only exists in his shop ...
Why do some second-hand bookshops mark the prices in a strange code, so that instead of it saying pounds 3.50, it might say B/TQ? Is this to make it harder for the customer to haggle, or is it because the bookseller can't decide what to charge?
No, it's so that the bookseller can look at the customer and decide how much he can sting him. We recommend that whenever you find such a coded price pencilled in, you rub it out and write X/BT instead.
What does that mean?
Haven't the faintest idea. But nor will the bookseller.
Why is the music in second-hand bookshops always Mozart?
Because he is out of copyright.
Finally, why do second-hand bookshops sell books that nobody in their right minds could possibly want to buy?
I am always seeing copies of `The Good Pub Guide 1983' for sale. Why, for heaven's sake, would anyone want to have a 13-year-old pub guide?
Let me ask you a question. I am always passing pubs that have stickers in the window reading: "We are in The 1983 Good Pub Guide," and nothing later. Why haven't they taken them down?
I don't know. Why?
To cater for all the people who don't buy pub guides unless they're over 10 years old.
Copies of this guide to second-hand bookshops available from me, only 30p ... OK, 20p. Or 10p? OK, free, then. But that's my final offer.
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