Cool Bookish Places

Why You Should Do Your Holiday Shopping at Used Book Stores

Alex Laffer

Staff Writer

Alex Laffer is a writer, editor and researcher. He’s just finished his PhD, which involved listening to hours and hours of people talking about books; all things considered, not a bad way to pass the time. Born in Britain of Australian and Vietnamese descent, he’s interested in the negotiation of identity and empathy in literature. His reading habits jump from science fiction to natural history and most things in between, but he’s particularly fond of Japanese literature, the work of Salman Rushdie and books that do fun things with form. Alongside the day job, he’s currently trying to organise a poetry night in South London and write fairy tales for his nieces and nephew. He doesn’t like camping. Twitter: @exlaffer

Looking for a last-minute Christmas present? Want something a little less obvious? Why not try your local charity or second-hand bookshop? Buying from an independent trader or charity shop can be a great way to give a little back to your local community or society in general, particularly after the rampant commercialization of Black Friday – which has somehow made it to the UK too, despite the fact we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving this side of the Atlantic.

I used to find the whole idea of donating books strange. How could anyone want to give away their precious precious books? I’ve since realized that not everyone is a hoarder like me. Apparently, some people think it is better to reserve some space for non-book-related possessions, or are interested more in the contents than the container. This is great for those of us seeking a bargain, or those willing to spend a bit of time to find their next literary adventure. Your local charity shop or second-hand-book shop can be a trove of unexpected pleasures, and an ideal place to visit now that Christmas is on its way.

Massive sellers for little prices

Charity shops are sure-fire places to pick up the year’s breakout smashes and bestsellers at a bargain price. Massive amounts of these books have been sold, so it is unsurprising that so many end-up being donated. A few years back, it was The DaVinci Code, followed by Twilight.

More recently E.L. James has been helping keep shelves stocked with her Fifty Shades trilogy. Oxfam in Swansea, Wales, received so many copies that staff and volunteers even made a very impressive fort out of them.

If you know someone – like me – who hasn’t read Girl on a Train yet, then you can guarantee you’ll be able get it at a bargain price in your local charity shop. (This is also a great way to source copies for book clubs.)

Browsing someone’s personal library

Charity shops are great for finding something for tricky to buy relatives and friends. You know your gran likes historical fiction, but if she’s read every Philippa Gregory, where do you go for her next hit of Tudor intrigue? Well, you may happen across someone’s carefully curated personal library distributed among the shop shelves. There will be clusters of books on similar topics, coming with a seal of approval that someone interested in that genre thought they were worthy of buying. It’s a great way to expand the range of your reading, following in the footsteps of an anonymous book-lover.

Something for the book fanatic

Second-hand book shops are also excellent places to pick up hardback editions at reduced prices. These make a lovely, and more substantial, Christmas present, particularly for those still enamored with the physicality of books. They will vary in how well looked-after they are, but if you’re lucky you might be able to pick up an almost-new review copy of a new release at a fraction of the usual cost. (Any Amount of Books in London is amazing for this; they always seem to have a stack of the latest hardback releases on sale!)

For real advance readers and book collectors, you might even stumble across uncorrected-proof copies. These pre-release versions of books are not normally distributed to the public, but provide a fascinating insight into the publishing industry. They often have alternative covers, sometimes adorned with sales and marketing information. Perhaps not for everyone, but an intriguing treat for a particular type of book lover, or anyone interested in how books are published and sold.

Personal inscriptions


This is a real favorite of mine. I always get a little thrill finding personal inscriptions inside books, or marginalia written beside the text. I’ve come across unwanted birthday presents (sad), books deliberately shared (amazing) and even peoples’ old study texts, complete with underlining, notes and the evidence of bored doodling. Like a real-life version of J.J. Abrams’ S., these notes can shape how you experience the story. They add another layer of texture, giving you a little peak into the reading lives of others.

These are just a few reasons why charity shops and second-hand book stores are such great places to do your Christmas shopping. You may not always get what you went in for, but with a bit of time and thought, you’ll leave with a great present that will also be a little piece of personal reading history.