Book Shopping

Goanna - it was big.I went book shopping yesterday. I went to a real, enclosed-in-a-building containing lots of flammable material manufactured from wood pulp, book shop. Indeed I went to two. I went to a place that sold new books; their covers may have been sullied by the hands that placed them on the shelf, but their innermost secrets are yet to be viewed by human eyes – maybe. Then I went to a place that sold second-hand books, and it was big! It held ten times as many books as the new-book shop, probably more, I didn’t try to count.

Being Australia, it cost me just over $80 to buy three new paperback books, I got six second-hand paperback books of good quality for less than half of that. Why bother telling you about such a trivial and common excursion? Well, I can’t help thinking about, and comparing, the different ways that we buy books.


First off, it’s appropriate to point out that not all bookshops are created equal.

One of my all-time favourite bookshops was a small shop in Lane Cove, Sydney – it’s possible they may still be there, though it’s been years since I lived in Sydney. It sold new books, but it was stocked and stacked like a second-hand shop. I could, and did, spend many pleasurable hours in that small space. Another favourite was a larger space in the country town near where I grew up. It had a very different atmosphere, but again it was a place where you went and the hours passed without notice.

But most are created equal.

Sadly the majority of new book shops, those I find in shopping malls and the like, are virtually identical. They are a place I go to see what’s selling well now, grab what I want and leave. The hustle and bustle of shopping trolleys passing within a few feet just won’t let me settle down and get comfortable. Of course the proprietors must set-up and supply according to demand, I can’t fault them for that, but such places bring book shopping down the to level of purchasing a loaf of bread or a carton of milk. There is little joy in it.

Goanna - gotta go.This is not to say that such bookshops don’t have their place, or that you should avoid them. They’re there to sell books for profit and their selection criteria often works. I found three books I wanted in the generic new book shop that I visited, and there were probably twice that many again that I would have picked up if I could have afforded them. But there was nothing about the shop that meant I was likely to go back specifically there for my next purchases.

And shopping online for books is all too similar to going to the mall. Most online resellers are effectively clones of one another; pick whichever one you want and the selection and experience – such as it is – is much the same. Online shopping is ideal when you already know what you want. Dive in, grab it and go. And with e-books, if you want, you can be reading your purchase with minutes. Who can complain about that?

I can.

Book shopping is one of the few forms of shopping I have ever enjoyed. If I’m just waiting for the latest book by a particular author, or the release of the next book in a series, I don’t mind where I get it. Online, shopping mall, the tooth fairy, I don’t care. But, when I’m looking for something new, I want the experience of discovery.

Now sure, I can make discoveries online. So many places that I can go and see what other people have had to say about a book I might be interested in … but how do I spark that first interest? Maybe I could choose to just trawl through Amazon who – as I write this – has over 86,000 (that’s eighty-six thousand!) new releases in the last 30 days. They have almost two and a half million books under the category of “Literature and Fiction”. How exactly do I fan the flame of interest in such a deluge? Let’s face it, I don’t. I wait to be spoon fed titles from some algorithm that throws up a list based on … who knows what.

I shouldn’t complain, they do the best they can. This is the 21st Century after all, people do things differently here. I’m supposed to get a feel for a book from the 3cm by 4cm version of the book cover. It’s like trying to pick an ideal lover from a string of dangling shrunken heads. There’s no sense of what’s there beyond a gaudy few square centimetres of coloured pixels.

But it is still possible to get the full book shopping experience.

Goanna - immersed.Maybe you’re lucky and live near a shop like one of those I mentioned earlier, a place still interested in books as they look on the shelf, how they feel in your hand, and how they smell when you open them. But if you don’t, look instead for a second-hand bookshop and you’ll find this same experience, often amplified by time, volume and affordability.

When I walk into a well run bookshop it’s like walking into another world. The world I’ve left behind fades into the distance and the atmosphere of a thousand new worlds descends around me. This is what book shopping is about.

Books climb shelves from the floor to the ceiling, making even wide aisles seem narrow and cramped. Here and there my way is blocked by books sitting on the floor waiting to be sorted. In some places books protrude from the shelves where some careless browser has not returned them properly, so I reach up to tidy up the line (okay, so I’m a bit compulsive). My fingers trail over the line of books and my eye catches a title … what’s that?

Goanna - I wants you.In the best bookshops, new or second-hand, I am immersed in books. There may not be two and a half million books, but nor are there algorithms trying to sell me more of the same; the same as what I’ve read before, the same as what everyone else is buying. Locked inside those walls of books it is the experience that takes over. It builds its own mood. This is books en masse. It is an experience that uses all the senses (except taste, no food in here, please, and no licking the pages). Here it is chance that makes one book reach out and grab my attention. My eye will miss most of what it runs over today, but that’s okay, I’ll be back.

“Go to the library”, I hear you say, and you’re right, I could do that. But, surrounded by books in this way, my avarice begins to swell. I wants them! And in a bookshop I can have them. This, too, is part of the experience. Any of them are within my grasp. All I have to do is reach up and add it to the growing pile in my arms – I can feel the weight of it. I wants you, my precious.

2 comments to Book Shopping

  • Erika

    A library doesn’t leave you the books on tap – you have to return them. A good bookshop is a miraculous cavern of worlds, available for the taking. There is nothing quite like browsing the stacks and the serendipitous find. It’s pretty much impossible for me to walk out empty handed. My limits are money and storage space….

    • gmw

      Money, regrettably, we are forced to think about before we can depart with our new discoveries … but storage space never occurs to me until I get home.

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