Book Reviews

Second hand or new books

An article appeared this week in The Telegraph (one of the leading ‘serious’ newspapers published in the UK) in which Theodore Dalrymple extolled the delights of browsing in second-hand book shops and bemoaned their demise.

When I worked in Cardiff city center many years ago I loved spending the occasional lunch break picking through the jumble of books in a few of these shops. They were just as dusty and damp smelling as Dalrymple described though I can’t say I ever found any mummified silverfish or any books owned by a serial killer. But I did enjoy the serendipitous nature of the stocking strategy with its juxtaposition of authors who in real life had little in common and novels inscribed with tender messages of love and affection from long ago owners.

Most of these shops have now disappeared under the combined weight of increased business rates and online stores. There is only one left in a city center arcade but the shelves seem more devoted to flogging hard back editions of Jilly Cooper than cloth bound editions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

For serious second hand book shopping, there is really only one place to head in the UK and that’s to the town of Hay-on-Wye, a small market town on the English/Welsh border which has dubbed itself  ‘the town of books.’  Hay currently boasts some 30 antiquarian or second hand dealers which is quite something for a town that has less than 2,000 inhabitants (plus a few thousand sheep in the surrounding Black Mountains).  Just wandering through the oldest of these establishments – the Hay Cinema Bookshop – requires a few hours.

Outdoor book browsing at Hay-on Wye
Outdoor book browsing at Hay-on Wye

It’s a warren of a place with around 200,000 books in the cavernous space of the former cinema. And if the indoor shelves are not enough to satisfy the appetite, the store also spills out into the garden.  The last time I visited I picked up old Penguin editions of the entire Corridors of Power series by C P Snow which had been out of print in the UK for several years. The pages are a little yellow along the edges and the covers a little cracked but that  just adds to their character for me.

It’s a while since I’ve paid a trip there but I feel the urge to return sometime soon……




What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

6 thoughts on “Second hand or new books

  • Likewise I love the smell of second hand books and the thrill of discovery. Hay on Wye is a fantastic place and we last visited in 2007 so I wonder what the damage from the recession has been. I do recognise your photo and have a photograph of myself enjoying the books in the same spot!

    • Hi Julie. Thanks for dropping into the blog. I don’t know exactly where you live in the West Country but market towns often have second hand book shops – is there one near you?
      Ps I saw your genealogy blog. What a good idea for keeping notes. Mine are all over the p,ace so I could definitely do with some organisation help. Wd the blog idea work do you think?

      • I live between Exeter and Torquay. The nearest “proper” market town is Mortonhampstead and is about 15 miles or so so not impossible. There was one at Ashburton. Otherwise there are lots of charity shops in town and Newton Abbot.

        Ah, you mean Loose Ends? – Yes I transcribed this notebook in full and will continue with a small pile of others. It becomes an online archive and others may see the note, even random thought and you may strike lucky.

        I decided upon doing it for two reasons, the first was archive the notebook and I wanted to try out WordPress with a small project. Not completely sure I like it compared to blog they are the same yet different!

        Give it a go and send me the link and I will stop by.

  • Who doesn’t love the distinct smell of a used book, its yellowing pages, the inscription on the first page, the original price tag, and the connection that it made with the previous owner? Although I love new books, I still regularly wander around the used book stores here in our country for surprise finds.

  • It’s interesting Jessica how Oxfam has got into the second hand books business. There’s one in Cardiff which always seems busy. They’re good for some of the more popular novels but I haven’t had much luck there with the classics.

  • I too love to browse through second-hand bookshops, and am sad they seem to be on the decrease. There used to be wonderful little shop in my mother’s village. The old lady that ran it sadly died and her family weren’t interested in carrying it on. Now the only second-hand bookshop I know of is the local Oxfam bookshop.


We're all friends here. Come and join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: