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London's Geeky Weekend

Second-hand and Serendipitous

Iain M Banks ExcessionLast week, Anne and I were talking about how we hadn't gone to a used bookstore in ages. For years, nearly every weekend was spent in some delightfully murky basement, rooting through boxes in search of second-hand treasure. But between jobs and life (and cons and review copies), our scrounging seemed to have tailed off.

This stuck in my head, so, last night (coincidentally, payday), I meandered by one of my favourite haunts - Any Amount of Books - before hopping on the Tube home. It turned out to be a case study in why used bookstores are awesome.

I found a book I actively wanted (the UK edition of David Eddings' High Hunt) (don't laugh). I also stumbled upon some unique books that simply couldn't exist 'new' (two Penguin editions of Graves' Greek Myths that the previous owner had lovingly rebound in leather). And, best of all, I wound up with a signed copy of Iain M. Banks' Excession (for four whole pounds!).

The Banks alone is a perfect reminder of why second-hand shops will always be significent to me. With or without the 'M', I enjoy Banks' books. I don't love him, so I don't buy his books new - but I like him, so I'll pick up one of his hardcovers if I see it second-hand. As a result, although I wouldn't qualify myself as a 'fan', I seem to have developed a substantial collection of his books. Moreover, they accumulate at the perfect rate. By the time I have two or three stockpiled, he'll be at an event, and I'll get them signed.

At some point, the Banks collection became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with its own ridiculous rules. Buying one new would be cheating, whereas finding them used is completely fair game. To add to the madness, I'll buy his latest books at signings and then give them to friends... only to buy them again later for myself (missing the cover) (with water damage).

M-127It is the same with a dozen (embarrassed cough)... three or four dozen... other haphazard collections that have sprung up over the years. Ace Doubles: I could complete my set overnight with, but that'd be cheating. Instead, I rummage through boxes at cons and, despite a half-dozen checklists, persist in buying the same books over and over again. (Especially the Fred Saberhagen / John Rackham one from 1965. I've bought it four times. Damn you, M-127!) 

Maxim Jakubowski's amazing series of Black Box Thrillers: it took me years to complete a set of nine because I insisted on finding them myself. (In the interests of full disclosure, Anne bought me the last one - mostly because she's wonderful, but also because I was incredibly annoying.) I am missing exactly two books by John D. MacDonald. In the age of the interwebs, they could be winging their way towards me in two clicks, but... where's the fun in that? It'd be like running a marathon and then crossing the finish line in a golf cart. 

Books also mean more to us when we find them. The journey bestows upon the book, as object, a layer of significance that has nothing to do with the text. This one I found for four pounds (it must be worth twenty!) (No, of course, I'd never sell it!). This one I tripped over - literally - in a New Orleans basement. This one is from a charity shop, I have no idea how it made it overseas. I got this one backpacking - and I'm glad I did: read it through twice before finding another English bookstore. These stories are our tiny personal contributions to the greater whole of the book.

In an era of recommendation engines, retail promotions and review copies (for which I am eternally grateful) - we very rarely get the opportunity to discover for ourselves. Instead, the books find us, which, although a poetic thought, is also an un-empowering one. A second-hand bookstore takes away the convenience, the noise and the better part of my paycheck, but in return, it gives me the faint smell of mold, a lot of dust and serendipity.

What about you? Do you go to used bookshops? Do you have your own rules?