As a recent English graduate and self confessed book addict, I spend far too much time, and an unspeakable amount of money, in second hand bookshops. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy shopping in high street book shops too. I like the neatly arranged stacks, the tempting displays and the shiny book covers, but I love second hand bookshops.
Normally located at the end of dingy alleyways or behind unassuming shop fronts, staffed by eccentrics and always ankle deep in dust, when you stumble across them, great second hand book shops are true gems. I’d much rather have to dig around in piles of crumbling paperbacks to find one perfect purchase. And I don’t even mind the dust, really. Yes, I always leave with an itchy throat and my mascara dribbling off my chin, but I think second hand book shopping is really and truly worth both the struggle and the inevitable sneezing fit that follows.
There is no denying that the yellowing insides of most vintage books can’t match the smell of new pages (poke your nose inside a second hand one and I promise you it won’t be so pleasant!), I’ve honestly never walked out of a second hand book shop with a book I intended or needed to buy, and your prized purchase will, more often than not, shed a page or two whilst you’re reading it, but old books have so much more character than brand new ones. The time-worn pages, cracked spines and smudged ink all have a tale to tell.
And there is no denying that second hand books look good. As a result of wiling many an hour of my life away rifling through old book shops, I’ve recently developed a little bit of an obsession with Penguin books. In a quest to fill my shelves with their beautifully designed vintage paperbacks, I’ve begun manically scanning bookshops for the rare and exciting glimpse of an orange striped spine. Created by Grant Allen in 1935, the aim of the Penguin brand was to make good books affordable. Once merely a throwaway paperback, vintage Penguin books have now become something of a collector’s item. As the trademark penguin has slimmed down over the years (it started off rather podgy in the 1930s!), so have the book covers adapted and changed. They are iconic examples of British design; their jackets encapsulate the cultural and artistic moments that have defined Britain during the last seventy five years.
For this reason, vintage Penguin books are the ultimate retro accessory. Certainly, in my opinion, the older and crumblier they are the better. So although our poor primary school teachers spent years telling us not to, when it comes to second hand book shopping, I think there is some merit to judging a book by its cover. Choose wisely and your own collection of second hand books will certainly add a dash of vintage style to any room, bookshelf or outfit!
Whilst crumbly leather bound editions can bestow upon your book shelves a turn of the century feel, early Penguin books from the 1930’s and 40’s, though hard to come by, are beautiful and will effortlessly give any room a wonderfully nostalgic edge. The later editions are easier to find; lightweight and still surprisingly cheap, these books will easily fit in your handbag and are perfect for reading whilst topping up your tan in your, very on-trend, 50’s style bikini!
If you fancy battling with the musty and untidy contents of second hand book shops, my personal favourites are Book Cycle in Exeter, a wonderful old building where you decide how much you think your finds are worth, and The Winchester Book Shop. There are of course hundreds of good second hand book shops to be found in the back streets of London. And Oxfam book shops, which pop up everywhere, can be great as well, if a little bit more expensive (but who can complain when your pennies are going to charity?) If the dust gets a bit much, Car boot sales are also a great place to source vintage novels.
Wherever you look for second hand books, when you find them you’ll never want to give them away. Whether it’s just a folded down page, a forgotten book mark or, if you’re lucky, an inscription on the inside cover, there is something incredibly special about finding and owning something that has been loved before. Unlike airport impulse buys or cheap romance novels these books have hung around for a reason and they are worth keeping hold of.
Published in the August issue of Vintage Life Magazine (available in WHSmiths and a number of independent retailers)