Buying books can get expensive when you have a tbr pile as high as mine. In fact, my collection of unread books is so large it is no longer a pile, but takes up two whole shelves in my bookcase.
And so, since it would be impossible to stop (God forbid) buying books, I have found a guilt-free way of adding to my collection by shopping at my local op shop.
My new op shop obsession began when I was looking for a costume for a fancy dress party, and was distracted by the bookshelves in the corner. Of course, I swiftly forgot my previous mission (hence my very questionable approximation of Courtney Love at the party) and left with an armful of books, all for the price of a new release at a conventional bookstore.
However, buying books second hand is not just a financial win for readers.
When you browse the books at the op shop, front and centre is an entirely different selection of books to those you would find at a book shop. I ended up discovering older, forgotten books by some of my favourite writers whose works I had not read for years. There was Toni Morrison, John Updike, Johnathan Franzen, Lionel Shriver, Elena Ferrante and Alexander McCall Smith.
There were also books that had been prize winners and bestsellers in the past, whose books I had planned on, but never ended up, reading. These included Snow Falling On Cedars, Life After Life, Gone Girl and See What I Have Done.
These were books that I would have been reluctant to buy at a bookshop, in the face of all of the more recent bestsellers; it is hard to go past Daisy Jones and the Six, Boy Swallows Universe and The Barefoot Investor when they are all anyone is talking about, with their prominent displays and place on ‘top reads’ lists.
In op shops, it is rare to find such hyped books in the months after their release. But give them a year and they will be the books that find their way onto the shelves for a fraction of the price.
One of the best things about op shops is the unpredictability of what you might find, and the buzz of happening upon a book that you’ve long wanted to read. When I had finished the first two books in the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan series, I found the third in an op shop for $4.00. I was thrilled by my good fortune.
Most recently, I picked up Hot Milk by Deborah Levy at the Torquay Salvos – a book that had been widely praised a few years ago, but which I had forgotten about entirely. I loved it, and I loved the fact that I had ‘discovered’ this book at an op shop.
But it’s not just at op shops where these discoveries are possible – it is also at book markets, where it is possible to spend hours scouring the boxes and walking away with armfuls.
I’m not alone in my love of secondhand books; Washington Post books critic Michael Dirda said, “I am something of an aficionado of thrift stores. In my youth, I regularly searched their shelves for old books.
With any luck, Heaven itself will resemble a vast used bookstore, with a really good cafe in one corner, serving dark beer and kielbasa to keep up one’s strength while browsing, and all around will be the kind of angels usually found in Victoria’s Secret catalogs. ”
I’m not so sure about the Victoria’s Secret bit, but you get the idea.
In Street Haunting, Virginia Woolf wrote: “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.”
A little less romantically, but significantly, it makes environmental sense to reuse books, rather than sending them to landfill, or building toppling stacks of books around the house. There are only so many literary side tables that you need before you begin to get visits from the authorities concerned about fire risk.
In 2017, an article in The Guardian explored the environmental benefits of buying clothes at the op shop – the same benefits apply to buying books. While I struggle to regard buying books as a waste, when your consumption looks like mine, it is a relief to find a way of filling my beautiful bookshelves that is sustainable, financially and environmentally.
Unfortunately, not everyone wins when it comes to buying cheap, second hand books from op shops. Writers and publishers don’t get the same benefit as they would if we bought from regular shops or borrowed from libraries. However, it is a way that readers might discover their next favourite book, leading them to find other works in bookshops. I know that while I found Ferrante’s book in an op shop, I bought the next one in a traditional bookshop.
And there will always be an appetite for the next big thing and the exciting new releases from popular authors. Not everyone wants to wait until a book happens to appear in the op shop before buying an anticipated book. I’ll be racing among the best of them when the new Treehouse book by Andy Griffiths is released this month, and I’ll be lining up at the door of Readings when Anna Funder or Sofie Laguna release their next (about that – can you both please HURRY UP!)
Ultimately, buying books from an op shop is a way that I can keep exploring the world of books and adding to my bookshelf without the guilt of spending too much, and in the knowledge that I am reusing something that has already been well loved by someone else.