Thursday, 1 December 2011

Reading Habit's Top Five: Reasons to Buy Second Hand Books as Christmas Gifts

Even though the climate change debate has changed our shopping habits somewhat, the mere thought of buying second hand goods as Christmas gifts is still a little on the nose to most. As a second hand book dealer I’ve never really understood this. There are so many advantages to buying used goods, books in particular, that it just seems ridiculous to always buy new. Pride has a lot to do with it I think. We equate new with value and with personal status, so we buy new. We don’t want to be seen giving a ‘scabby’ present. Never mind that buying new requires new resources, that buying new is money in the pocket of a multinational rather than a human being, that buying new requires only a flippant flick through the latest sales brochure rather than any real thought. Now, I’m not saying don’t buy new. All I’m suggesting is that in some cases buying second hand makes more sense than buying new. So, in an effort to reduce the stigma attached to purchasing used books as Christmas gifts, and to be honest used goods in general, I’ve come up with five reasons to buy second hand this Christmas. 

#1 Save Money - More Bang for Your Buck

When is it more important to be price conscious than at Christmas when you’re already digging deep into your pockets for food, holidays, festive season parties, and activities to keep the kids entertained. Buying a second hand book as a gift rather than buying new means saving money. A new book will set you back anywhere between $15 and $40, whereas a good quality second hand novel can be purchased for between $5 and $20. Or, seen in a different light, buying second hand books means you can get more for your money. Rather than buying your loved one the latest John Grisham in hardcover for $35, wouldn’t it make more sense to buy three of his titles for the same price? I know which I’d prefer if I was the receiver.

NB: A good used book dealer should be offering books in ‘good’, very good’ and ‘as new’ condition, so don’t make the mistake of assuming that second hand equals poor quality. It’s not uncommon to be able to purchase a pre-loved book that looks like it has barely been read.

#2 Conserve Resources – Get An Environmental Gold Star

Not only does buying second hand books’ keep them from going into landfill, but it requires the use of no new resources. Consider this. In total, approximately 15 million copies of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth have been sold since it was first published in 1989, and on average about 100,000 new copies are produced each year. That’s a lot of copies of one book and you can imagine how many of them have either gone to landfill, or are sitting in a second hand bookstore just waiting to be purchased. Do you really need to purchase the 15,000,001th new copy of this book? Wouldn’t it be better for Mother Earth if you purchased a used copy? The choice is yours, but if you want to earn yourself an environmental gold star, second hand is the option. It’s the fun kind of recycling!

#3 Find that Hidden Treasure – And Earn Brownie Points at the Same Time

Without much thought and with very little effort, almost anyone can buy a copy of Bryce Courtenay’s latest Christmas instalment as a gift. However, if you’re looking for something less generic, something that requires thoughtfulness beyond a brief browse through the Target Christmas catalogue, a second hand book might just be the answer. Let’s say your dad is a real Bryce Courtenay fan. Why not find him a signed first edition copy of The Power of One? It’ll certainly get more ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ than the brand new book. Remember that extra effort in the search will gain you extra brownie points in the giving. How great would it be if you found that elusive title that completed your mother’s Agatha Christie Crime Collection? You’d be in the good books with your mum for at least a month I’d say! When you’re goal is to make the receiver go a little misty-eyed, think second hand, rare, antiquarian books and I reckon you’ll be on a winner. There’s also a benefit to the buyer with this one - it’s called the thrill of the find and it’s the ultimate warm fuzzy feeling.

#4 Support Local People – Build a Relationship with Your Book Dealer

Used book sellers are just like your local butcher, grocer or hardware store. Their very survival is based on the support and custom of local people. Buying the latest Nora Roberts from Big W does little for your local community. Sure, the staff might get a little of the profit in their pay packet, but let’s face it, the majority goes straight into the coffers of the company itself. Buying from your local antiquarian book dealer is an investment in your community, because money in their pockets will inevitably circulate right back through. Money arguments aside, you’ll also get customer service. Remember that! It’s old-fashioned I know, but I’m a sentimental kind of girl. If you’re really lucky you might even strike up a Helene Hanff 84 Charing Cross Road style relationship with your second hand book dealer. Wouldn’t that be nice?

#5 Buck the System - Be a Trailblazer Not a Follower

Just because it’s not the norm, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Be a pioneer, buck the trend, set an example for others. Hell, why not have a complete second hand Christmas with no new gifts at all, just pre-loved all the way. This may seem like a fairly flimsy reason to buy used books (stemming from a desire to reach the number five), and you could be partially right, but I prefer to see it as something bigger than that. Buying second hand is all about ethical consumption. It’s about being socially conscious. We could all do with some role models where these moral arguments are concerned, so why not put your hand up and be one.

To close, I want to acknowledge that there are arguments against buying second hand as well. The most obvious is that buying second hand takes money away from the publishers and the authors themselves. You could argue that buying new ensures that there is a future for writing and it’s a valid argument that as a true bibliophile I’m not immune to, particular when considering the specific case of the Australian literary scene. In my defence, I’m only trying here to balance the argument a little for second hand goods as they are generally un-championed. Poor diddums!


  1. Brilliant, true, and delightful, Amber! Families can usually use: a world atlas; dictionary; annotated version of a classic; foreign phrases dictionary; maps or art books related to a favorite like Lord of the Rings; cookbooks galore; whodunnits; books which have inspired movies like Mary Poppins, The Secret Garden, and countless others; detectives from decades ago which are heros of many of the current mystery writers; and all kinds of quirky books reminding us of the unique characters of those on our gift lists. I also must mention that many an A+ was due to a classic book in its entirety being available on the shelf at home when a student forgot to pick one up at the library! As you see, I am a believer! Merry, magical Christmas, to you, yours and your readers! (*;*)Maureen A. Mulligan, Vero Beach, FL

  2. I shared your excellent article on my Facebook site, Amber. Thank you very much! :^) Maureen again.

  3. Hi Maureen, Thanks for your comments on this post and thanks also for sharing the post with your other book loving friends. Let's hope we inspire some people to buy second hand this year.

  4. I tweeted this to my followers too - good article - Heather

  5. Ah, but what about authors? Those little people don't benefit from second-hand book sales. Now you may argue that some authors are not little people, and some books found used are already out of print. All this is true, but factor in authors as well when deciding how to purchase.
    (I say this as a person who haunts used book stores and works in one. But I'm also an author.)

  6. A couple of replies to comments. Thanks to Heather for the tweet!! To bookbacklist - I hear you!! That's why I mentioned it in the last paragraph. And, that's also why I stressed that I was not arguing totally against buying new. My point was that sometimes secondhand is undervalued. I'm a proud purchaser of both new and old.


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