The Serendipity of Second-hand Booksellers

“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 of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.” -Virginia Woolf, “Street Haunting”

It ought to be a truth universally acknowledged that there is no greater pleasure than exploring the amassed aisles of a second-hand bookshop; there is something that borders the magnificent when standing amongst books that others have once loved and cherished.

Outside of my own subjective feelings, there are objective factors that might influence a consumer to favor a second-hand bookseller over a more “traditional” bookshop–second-hand booksellers offer lower prices, a range of titles, and personalized store atmospheres. To provide concrete examples, I’ll consider a range of three different shops: a local, non-profit book sale from my hometown; the U.S. chain 2nd & Charles and the U.K. mini chain The Last Bookshop; and the larger chains of Barnes & Noble in the U.S. and Waterstones in the U.K.

Factor One: Lower Prices

My love for second-hand book bargains began at a local non-profit Friends of the Library book sale some years ago. The monthly sale had aimed to raise proceeds to help the local library through selling donated books at very compelling prices: paperbacks for 0.25 cents each; softcovers for 0.50 cents; and hardbacks for $1.00. Prices like these couldn’t–and, I’ve found, still can’t–be found anywhere else.

Complicating categorization, the U.S. chain 2nd & Charles presents a mixed selection of used books (acquired from customers in exchange for either store credit or cash) interspersed with newer, list-price titles and items. The U.K. mini chain The Last Bookshop sells a combination of second-hand books and new, remaindered books, allowing them to sell new texts at competitive prices–they have perpetual deals of two books for £5, or one for £3, which are both quite tantalizing.

And, finally, there’s the traditional large chain bookseller. Price-wise, these tend to be less competitive as they tend to sell their stock at list price.

Some beautiful books (and a CD) I found at a sale in April of 2019, adding to my already overflowing shelves.

Factor Two: Range in Titles/Genres

When I first ventured into my local book sale, I was in 6th grade and my YA reading phase was bordering an obsession; Gollum-like, I manically clutched any romantic YA novel I could get my hands on. Because of the paucity of YA novels on the shop’s shelves I instead favored Barnes & Noble, as the second-hand sale was limited by what others chose to donate.

Stores such as 2nd & Charles and Last Bookshop offer the best of both worlds through being booksellers that mix the serendipity of a second-hand store with the “trendiness” present in the new stock of traditional stores; they have the ability to reach two different ends of the book-buying spectrum.

Larger chain booksellers are often one’s best bet for trendy books and newest editions. While their prices might not be competitive, their selection certainly is. When I’ve been itching to read the newest book in a series, I know I can rely on Barnes & Noble or Waterstones to offer it; the same can’t always be said for the other booksellers.

More finds from the local book sale, all for around $7.50

Factor Three: Personalized Atmosphere

Stacked haphazard, boxes, the slight disorganization of the local book sale was an invitation to explore and find new titles–or, rather, to let the titles find me instead. The sale offered old grocery carts at the door to facilitate a slow, meandering kind of browsing where customers would spend hours wheeling the aisles and reading blurbs. More often than not, second-hand sales don’t have more than one copy of any given edition of a book, leading one to view the shopping experience as more individualized, more unique.

While the arrangement of 2nd & Charles feels somewhat like a chain store, its range in titles/editions and unique organization of genres make up its individualized feel. The Last Bookshop in Oxford emanates personality both through its collection of titles and feel of the shop itself. Nestled in a quaint residential area, the store feels intimate, its downstairs selection of second-hand and antiquarian books a treasure trove.

Both the local sales and smaller, second-hand bookshops or chains share in common a sense of positive disorganization that isn’t allowed to thrive in the traditional chain bookstore. When stores are too organized, they serve the purpose of finding a specific book; when they encourage a slight messiness, they allow wanderers to explore and peruse. While different branches of chain booksellers certainly can exhibit a limited, individualized feel, as a whole they lack the original zest of a smaller store.


While shopping in a chain bookstore can be useful when one is in search of a specific title or in a time crunch, nothing beats the experience of being in an independent bookstore. Shopping in a bookstore is not about–and, furthermore, should not be about–always knowing what you want or need to read; at its heart, expanding one’s library, like the act of reading itself, prioritizes stumbling upon untrodden avenues as though upon some secret garden. Like beach-combers, readers roam the aisles of booksellers searching for precious finds, the result of carrying home a good book like the serendipity of finding of some old shell, both equally capable of transporting one to distant times and lands.



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