By Gary D. Hutchison |

There are those who love to shop, and those who, to put it mildly, do not.  Spending chunks of time trudging around soulless shopping centres in search of life’s necessities is certainly not my idea of a raucous afternoon.  And yet, in common with many other doctoral researchers, browsing for secondhand books rates among my favourite pastimes.  Having spent a great many hours methodically scanning bookshelves in a wide variety of places, these are some of the experiences I’ve had over the years.



Location Location Location:  I’ve found that dedicated second-hand bookshops tend to be the best places uncover hard-to-find and out-of-print works.  Frequently in close proximity to universities, they often specialise in academic works.


Also convenient for lunchbreaks

It Pays To Ask:  Those who work in specialist bookshops commonly manage to build up in-depth knowledge on a wide range of areas, and as such can point you in the right direction.  They can also assist in finding seemingly unfindable works – having searched for one particular book everywhere online and in person for years, one shop-owner was able to locate a copy for me in just a week.


Is there a secret bookseller’s network?

Off The Beaten Track: I’ve had a great deal of luck searching in other, less obvious places.  High street charity shops occasionally have rare or interesting books hiding in plain sight – and these often much cheaper than would have been the case in a specialist bookshop.  Similarly, the location of charity shops often determines the likelihood of making a good find.  To give one example, the charity shops in Edinburgh’s Morningside area tend to have a wide selection of books which reflect the donations made by residents in the immediately surrounding area.


Good books and a good cause

Outdoor Activities: Sunday markets and car-boot sales have also been excellent places to make a surprise find.  Of the latter, entire specialist collections are occasionally put on sale, meaning that one excellent find could in fact mean dozens of relevant titles.  Indeed, one colleague built up the bulk of his collection in this way.  I’ve sadly not found anything big in this way yet, but I live in hope!

Better get there early for the best finds

Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover:  This is true in the literal sense.  Seemingly newer books can in fact be older editions that have subsequently been rebound.  Having bought an innocuous set of three modern-looking volumes for a very reasonable price, I took them home only to discover that they were rebound first editions.


Old or new?

Inscriptions:  It’s always worth looking at the inside page of a book to see if there are any inscriptions.  Usually this consists merely of a name and a date, but there is occasionally more information to be gleaned.  They provide an interesting glimpse into the history of a particular copy, and can even be surprising – given the niche nature of many academic volumes, you might even find that a book was given as a gift to someone whose own work you have cited.


Be prepared to encounter some terrible handwriting

Ultimately, the major advantage of browsing for books in person is that it enables us to widen our horizons and to uncover titles that we may never have come across online.  Moreover, the materiality of books can be as important as their actual content – there really is no substitute for being able to pick up an interesting and/or beautiful volume.  While our lives have been made much easier by the rise of online shopping, the fact remains that there truly is no substitute for physical browsing – but only for books.



Gary Hutchison is a Contributions Editor for Pubs and Publications.  Check out our Who We Are section for his full bio.

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