Saturday, 2 September 2017

The lure of secondhand books

© Prashant C. Trikannad

Secondhand books are like antique furniture. They have a musty but pleasing smell, great monetary value, and are much sought-after by discerning readers and serious collectors. But just as it's not easy to buy old furniture, it's not that simple to get hold of forgotten and out-of-print books. You have to establish contacts with used booksellers over several years, like a news reporter cultivating his source for a scoop or a cop working an informant for a tip on an elusive gangster. Once you have a mole or two in the used book trade, you can get almost any title you want and tick them off your wish-list.

I remember every secondhand book or comic-book I have bought over the past three decades, and it hasn’t been easy.

Some years ago, I visited a prominent new bookstore in South Mumbai to pick up a 1995 edition of DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favourite Comic Book Heroes by Les Daniels, a well-known historian of comic books. The 256-page hardback—described as "The complete story of America's favourite heroes and their talented and dedicated creators"—was on sale for the magical price of Rs 450 ($9). Naturally, I was elated. However, I resisted the temptation to buy the book. I thought I could use the money for something more useful, and walked away. When it comes to books, you can’t be blind all the time; sometimes you’ve got to be practical, too.

It was just as well.

A few weeks later, I spotted a near-mint edition of the volume at a pavement bookseller in Fort-Fountain area, a central business district about 7 km from the bookstore. It was sandwiched between an airtight stack of academic journals and coffee-table books. "It's yours for Rs 150," said the bookseller who knew his books better than I did. I offered him Rs 100. We finally settled for Rs 125 ($2.5). It was a bargain I would've been a fool to turn down. Of course, it helped that the bookseller was a "friend" of many years.

Not long after, I stumbled across a fine — and rare for me — edition of The Penguin Book of Comics by Englishmen George Perry and Alan Aldrige, 1967—a 272-page volume chronicling the evolution of British and American comic books. While Perry wrote the text, Aldridge designed the cover and the illustrations. The book analyses the rise and fall of comics in mid-20th century in the wake of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code, and the influence of comic strips and comic books on popular culture, and entertainment such as art, films, and television.

Until the mid-nineties, booksellers lined the footpaths in that part of South Mumbai. Today, there are fewer than a dozen, thanks to eviction drives by the municipal corporation. Interestingly, the civic officer in charge of one such operation left the booksellers alone even as he went after other hawkers in the area. "Books are Saraswati (the Hindu goddess of learning and knowledge). I want people to buy and read books," he told me at the time. Since the turn of the century many sellers have dumped books—that few people are reading, let alone buying—for more lucrative goods like mobile phone accessories. Book collectors like me were the losers.

Secondhand books are not as elusive as you think they are. You have to keep your eyes open, know where to look. Sometimes they can be right under your nose, other times you have to sniff them out like a wolf sniffing out its prey. After years of browsing, I can home in on a ‘wanted’ title like some kind of a heat-seeking missile. All it takes is a quick, sweeping glance of stacks upon stacks of pavement books, provided the titles are displayed prominently. With practice, you can hone book-spotting into an art.

Some of the most rewarding secondhand book haunts in my city of 18 million are raddiwalas. These hole-in-the-wall paper marts, dotting the island city and its extended suburbs, are more than dusty repositories of old newspapers, plastic bottles, and assorted junk. You never know what reading treasures you will find there. While a few organised paper marts know the value of good books and pass them on to professional booksellers, most stack up books near the entrance and sell them cheap. 

Like an archaeologist digging for bones, I have been prospecting raddiwalas for well over two decades, and rather successfully too. I once bought a dozen rare Phantom and Mandrake comics, under the Indrajal imprint, from a paper mart close to my home for Rs 10 each ($0.16), almost as good as free.

Obviously, the raddiwala didn't know their real value considering that owner Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd, publishers of The Times of India, stopped printing Indrajal Comics in 1990. The result: booksellers and individual collectors have been quoting obscene figures for the comics which, apart from Lee Falk's Phantom and Mandrake, included Indian artist Abid Surti's hero Bahadur (the Brave), Roy Crane's Buz Sawyer, Allen Saunders' Kerry Drake and Mike Nomad, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby, and Phil Corrigan, and Steve Dowling's Garth.

Some of the other prized books I bought secondhand over two decades ago, and still cherish, are Art Spiegelman’s Maus (I & II), the 160-page The Science Fiction Book: An Illustrated History by Franz Rottensteiner, a hardback illustrated edition of Futuredays: A Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000 by Isaac Asimov, Cows of Our Planet: A Far Side Collection by Gary Larson, Sudden paperbacks by British writer Oliver Strange, a hardback of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Calvin and Hobbes volumes, and dozens of DC and Marvel comics including pocket-size war and western comic-books. Back then, it wasn’t easy to cough up money for a new Gary Larson or a Bill Watterson.

In this age of Amazon and Ebooks, the secondhand book trade is almost dying. Until it does (though I really hope it doesn’t), I will continue to hunt down elusive and priceless fiction and nonfiction. So far I have been lucky, managing to find a few gems every year. The secret to a productive secondhand-book hunt is patience and perseverance—and sometimes luck, when wanted titles leap out at you when you aren't even looking. Those are the ones I like best.

15 comments:

  1. Thanks, Prashant, for sharing your stories of secondhand books. They're so special, aren't they? And as you say, you do need to keep your eyes open. Sometimes they show up when you least expect. For instance, not very long ago, I bought a secondhand copy of a mystery novel. It wasn't in an antique or well-known cover, etc.. But it turned out to be signed by the author. How lucky can you get?

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  2. I used to be a hunter of second hand books both here in Colombo (very scarce) and in the op shops in Melbourne (huge eclectic selections). Then I stopped buying completely. It was a tough choice but it had to be done!!! I love the smell, the piles of them and how you really have to rummage as generally not arranged by genre.

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  3. I need to write a story about the future where a character finds the last secondhand bookstore in the world

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  4. I have always loved used book stores, Prashant. You never know what you will find, so it is like treasure hunting. Unfortunately that aspect of it makes me more likely to spend too much money there. Nowadays, we actually have more secondhand books stores here in the Santa Barbara area than new book stores, but we don't have many of either and it is hard for them to survive.

    I like Charles Gramlich's idea of a story about the last secondhand bookstore in the world.

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  5. Always sad to hear, though I think books will be around forever (or, well, i hope they will be ...). I do increasingly buy second title online now ..

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  6. I grew up going to a second-hand bookstore nearly every week....*loved* it. I wonder if the place is still around. Your copy of the Far Side's Cows sounds fun. :)

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  7. Nice post, Prashant. Going through the stacks in a used-book store is like panning for gold. Sometimes you come up with nothing. Other times you find a nugget or two. And occasionally you get a real strike.

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  8. I want to like second hand books but I really don't. I think it stems from the time when I used to sort donations to one of the large charities here - many of the items donated were books in really bad condition - not just rips and tears and missing pages but all sorts of curious and worrisome stains as well. I felt like I needed gloves just to get through the sorting session.

    I think too that I have never quite gotten over the fact that I can afford new books (not lots of them but enough). When I was growing up there wasn't much money - but we used to always get a new book for each birthday if there was money for gifts at all - that was such a special treat that I have such fond memories of - when I started working and got to a point where I had some "spare" money I couldn't wait to start buying new books of my very own. I still get a thrill from it

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  9. I love the second hand bookstores, but they are fading away too fast. Back in the fifties, I visited a store in Honolulu several times and finally bought a three-volume edition of the History of Egypt, bound in leather. printed in 1885 in English for $5 a volume. I had to leave it at the base when I got transferred aboard a ship, but I always wondered what happened to it. I gave it to a sailor on the base.

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  10. Love a secondhand book, (as well as a new one and a Kindle book!) Shame they take up too much space and the older ones don't agree with my eyesight!

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  11. Thanks for this fascinating history.. I wish you much success and many years searching for books.

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  12. We have a few second-hand bookstores in Northern Colorado -- when I go into one, it's usually to browse the history section. The only time I ever searched for a specific nonfiction book, I found it in Los Angeles. That was before the Internet allowed such easy access to information. I had to rely on a lot of phone calls to find what I wanted...and I was making those calls from far away in South Florida. Sure is easier today!

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  13. Love second-hand books and after reading your well-written post want to visit a second-hand book store immediately. Sadly they have all but disappeared from Delhi.

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  14. We have a massive secondhand booksale on the island every year and before the rise of the internet it was the place to go to find those elusive books - I still go now to support the charity and of course to add to my bookshelves.

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  15. No secondhand bookstores near me, Prashant, unfortunately - that's why Abe Books online is my treasure hunting paradise. :) But I'd rather have the actual books in my hands to sift through. You are so fortunate to have all these book havens near you. There's very little to compare with the joy of stumbling across a hidden treasure while sorting through mountains of books.

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