We lived at that time in an old dusty, crooked town whose streets were for ever going uphill, I was left a great deal to my own devices, and having on one occasion just before Christmas a penny to spend I determined to buy a book. I had never independently of my own account bought a book before; I didn’t think it would be difficult to buy a book for a penny; a penny seemed to me a good deal of money.

I went into the shop and asked what book might I have for a penny. The bookseller smiled and put in front of me a pile of thin little books bound in yellow paper. I can smell still the odd scent of those books, something musty like straw and pungent like cheese. I looked at them one after another and said that what I wanted was a story, I was quite clear that poetry would not do. The bookseller strongly recommended one, but when I found that it was written by the man whose works had already made two holidays miserable by their compulsory companionship I shook my head. However, he almost forced it upon me and refused, I am happy now to remember, to take my penny.

I took it home and that night, by the light of a guttering candle, began to read. At first there were difficulties, the print was atrocious, very small and irregular, dark at one moment, faint at the other, and there were parallel columns to every page. But I struggled on; there was a curious sense of adventure connected with the affair; I had bought, or had at least tried to buy, this book with my very own money, the silence of the house all around he leaping flame of the candle, the cheesy smell of brown cover, even the very smallness of the print excited me; this was a new

Hugh Walpole, These Diversions : Reading (1926).

We still find ourselves halting as instinctively at the humblest , or even the most familiar book-stall, as we used to do when fresh from school. In vain have we got cold feet at it, shivering, wind-beaten sides, and black-fingered gloves. The dusty old siren still delays us, charming with immortal beauty inside her homely attire, and singing songs of old poets. We still find ourselves diving into the sixpenny or threepenny ‘box’, in spite of eternal disappointment, and running over whole windows of books, which we saw but three days before for the twentieth time, and of which we could repeat by heart a good third of the titles. Nothing disconcerts but absolute dirt, or an ill-tempered looking woman.

Leigh Hunt, ‘Old books and bookshops: the beneficence of book-stalls’ (1837).

There really is something thrilling about walking into a bookshop filled with shelves and shelves of used books, don’t you agree? You just never know what treasures might be lurking round the nooks and corners. And it’s double the fun when there are those bargain boxes to dig into in spite of the ‘eternal disappointment ‘. 🙂

The moment one meets a book and knows, beyond shadow of doubt, that that book must be his – not necessarily now, but some time – is among the happiest excitements of the spirit.

Christopher Morley, ‘On visiting bookshops’ (1925).

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4 thoughts on “Friday Feature : On Buying Old Books

  1. I love that first passage from Walpole. I used to save my allowance so diligently when I was small in anticipation of trips to the used bookstore and was always overwhelmed by the volume of books on offer. It was marvellous. I still visit that same bookstore and it is still delightful to browse through but there was something about being a child with a limited sum of money that made it that much more exciting and special. The sense of ownership and awe I felt with those purchases – that this was now my book and mine alone – is something I’ve never felt since.

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    1. Walpole’s passage does capture the magic of those first childhood bookish encounters very well indeed. As do your own personal experience of those moments. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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  2. I think used bookstores just might be my very favorite places on earth–man-made, anyway. There’s something so intoxicating about the very smell of them!

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