My Secret Life in Used Bookstores




Sometimes I go to the bookstore if the day is getting long at work. Does my boss know this? No, but he wouldn’t mind if he did know. I get my work done. But I keep these visits to myself is because it’s nice to have something to keep to myself; I pick up my keys slowly so those around me can’t hear jingling, which is always a tell that someone is leaving, and go through a side entrance. Usually it’s anywhere between 10-11AM, when the sun is just right in the sky, about the same time as the quiet period before the lunch rush, when people are going to dentist appointments.

This time of day and situation is important because it matches the idealized version I have in my head of this trip to the bookstore. In the ideal version the sun is out, the air has a slight chill, the store isn’t crowded, and I am able to browse the shelves at leisure. It’s important also that I am only barely conscious of being away from work which gives it the energy of playing hookie.


A good face to have when browsing at the bookstore is somewhere between contemplative and pissed off, to ward off any overly-friendly employees who may otherwise be tempted to ask if there is anything they can help you find. No, dammit. I am here to look. And here’s another important point. Much is made on the internet and elsewhere about the beautiful smell of used books, which is true: used books do smell good. But for goodness sake, don’t put your face so close to something someone could have been handling while sitting on the toilet. Even if you buy a used book and it sits in your house for a while, be wary. You have to buy a book new and then earn the smell to experience it without the uncertainty of people’s disgusting habits. This also goes for running one’s fingers along the spines on the shelves which I am always tempted to do. A used bookstore’s shelves have a nicely irregular pattern to them, without the calculated stocking of bestsellers and shiny new releases. The result is something like a literary genealogy of the area surrounding the store. Imagine everything people have read in this town. But one must remember that these books are not necessarily loved books. Indeed, they weren’t kept and instead were sold for pennies on the dollar.

The used bookstore is not only a good metaphor for the declining value of books but also a nice economic mitigation.



This next part is something I’ve always felt but have never had the words to express. And still don’t. So here goes:

Whenever I think about this ideal trip to the bookstore, or am actually on the trip, I also have an associated thought of watching documentaries in high school, PBS documentaries, which were shown in lieu of class. A substitute teacher would put one on. Or sometimes we watched them on the last day of class, as a formality, because final exams were already over and the teacher had nothing to teach—but we still had to be there. I would lay my head on my desk and fall asleep. The fluorescent lights would be shut off and the blinds drawn while outside the sun was shining on the baseball field and summer was waiting.

I still don’t quite understand why I think of this while I sneak off to bookstores. But a scene like this is usually in my mind while driving, or browsing. These seem like two totally unrelated moments in life. Maybe something having to do with the vague ‘educational’ feeling of bookstores brings back memories of school, of these anti-climactic endings to school, and the PBS documentaries which accompanied them.

But I have a hunch it’s something deeper.



This last point I want to make is about the sense of duty when browsing at the used bookstore. Excavating underappreciated works and reviving them. This is a powerful tonic for Today’s Age. It can do really big things for you. And this gets more to the point I was trying to make above, and book lovers often make this mistake. They want to make books popular by fetishizing them. Smelling them. Touching them. Taking pictures on Instagram with them in which they sit pensively by a latte and an open window. This is harmless stuff, but largely misses the point and will ultimately fail as an effort to revive the popularity of the book.

You don’t really have to do any of this. The best advertisement for the books you read, in fact, is you. Being an interesting person isn’t as hard as its made out to be. The hardest part is coming up with words to talk about what’s going on in your head. And so much is going on, I guarantee. Good books will help you learn how to say it. That’s all you really need.




Every once in a while I actually buy a book. It has to be a good one. And I’ll take it back to work with me, going back in the side entrance, and back to my desk. If I run into my boss he’ll give me a knowing nodding/smiling look. He knows. He has to know.

At my desk I put my keys down gently so as not to alert my surrounding colleagues of my absence. Why do they need to know? I can’t explain it to them. I set down the keys, noiselessly, and, if I have the time before lunch, I may even begin reading my new book. This also has to be quiet because believe it or not you can hear pages turning in an office. It’s an unmistakable sound amidst keyboard-typing and mouse-clicking. Phth, I turn the pages, quietly setting the book free while it quietly sets me free.


41 thoughts on “My Secret Life in Used Bookstores

      1. I resonate with your thought pattern here.Especially about used books and the hygienic state of them. I used to work at a student library and honestly after handling those books I would use sanitizer! Sometimes in between handling books too. I couldn’t wait to get home and wash my hands.

        A book store and library have a slightly different atmosphere but essentially they provide the same service, the library temporarily where as the book store for the long term (until it gathers dust on a book shelf or ends up at the charity shop) I always felt like I was somewhere special in between and amongst the thoughts of so many people, knowing that I probably disagreed with most of them. I think that’s the reality. Perhaps only a handful of books will only ever wholly strike a real authentic code with you (or that’s what I think anyway!) because the majority of books you have to adapt to. But going back to the hygiene, honestly not knowing where the students had been and knowing that I could not count how many students had touched these books was a real concern for me! I’m not OCD in the slightest but I just didn’t like the uncertainty of the place where hygiene was concerned.

        Great post though.


  1. There’s nothing like going to a bookstore and going through racks of books. You’ve decribed the feeling perfectly. You are fortunate your bosd does not tell u off when you leave during office hours😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was in my teens, with very little pocket money, bookstores peddling used books were my go-to. It was the place where I could procure the largest sections of my TBRs (if they weren’t available in the libraries) with the least amount of money. My private collection still carries favorite titles that are second-hand books. I used to think that when I grow older and earn a living that allows me to spare the money, I would replace these favorites with fresh prints but I have long since decided against it. I now feel that those books represent my dedication to reading and collecting titles by favorite authors even at a time when I was not so financially comfortable.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved this, especially the part of you sneaking out of work. When I worked as a journalist I’d lie and say that I was heading out to interview a source for a story. Then I’d drive my car to the park, sit and read for a few hours (while getting paid to do so, hee, hee). P.S. Used books do smell great.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I go to the bookstore on an *extra long* lunch hour about twice a week. I rarely buy anything during these trips. They’re more like a panacea for the drudgery of my workday. They refresh me. Then it’s back to work. So I totally hear ya, Dan. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I really like what you mentioned: “the best advertisement of your book is, you. ”
    I enjoyed your writing 🙂
    I love walking in the library, covering by the smell of the old books and imagine myself is in a different world. I sometimes have an erotic impulse while I’m there. It’s an unreasonable but believable fact.


  6. #4. That was my favorite part of this post. Books truly do give you ways with which to express yourself. Everything from Dickens, to Rowling, to non-fiction writers and more, all add to the beauty of written language. Books are amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Stars On Flames and commented:
    I feel like this is one of those things I would do haha! Perhaps not in my current work because I have to concentrate for long periods so I can’t just up and leave! I understand what the writer is saying though.


  8. Yes. As tempting and convenient as it is to buy books online, I love becoming familiar with a book store, especially a used book store. I can still rememer the collections at a couple used book stores in Jerusalem, both of which I have been to several times. Florence too–that’s where I found Daniel Deronda for 3 euro! Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

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