On Disciplining the Buying of Books

I used to work at an antiquarian bookstore, the kind with wooden ladders, glass cases, and a floor that creaked when you shifted your weight. And wall-to-wall shelves lined with beautiful books.

Basically, it was the kind of place any book-loving bibliophile might dream of spending a few pleasant hours.

There were leather-bound books. Gilt-edged books. Marble endpapered books. Books with tipped-in plates. Books inscribed by their authors to other noteworthy persons (“presentation” copies these were called). Books that had been published when my umpteenth great-grandparents were alive. Books that were currently valued at the same price of a downpayment on a moderate home. Essentially, these books were rare, scare, and chère.

These were the books I cared for, collated, and kept company with for more than four years. I appreciated, associated with, but, oddly enough, was never truly temped by the antiquarian books. No, they were leagues away from my pocketbook spending.

The customers that came in to buy these books were mainly middle-aged, or perhaps a bit older, men. Often, they were professionals in any number of unrelated fields with incomes which funded their passion for collecting. As a twentysomething, lowly grad student with a part-time job and a small stipend, I couldn’t be further away from even presuming the part of a typical antiquarian book collector.

But this store, like many other quirky antiquarian ones of its kind, also had a collection of non-collectible, everyday books. These commonplace hardbacks and paperbacks were the calibre which I could afford, and there lay my inclination, temptation, allurement.

I began buying my own books soon after I learned to read, saving my allowance to purchase paperbacks from my school’s Scholastic book orders. Since then, I’ve haunted many a second-hand bookstore and frequented numerous new books stores. I’ve hunted for books at dubious garage sales and stale-smelling thrift stores. I’d gained a fairly good idea of the usual quality, selection, and price of used books. And so, with my experience, I knew that the antiquarian bookstore was the mecca of them all.

I would show up to work and often be greeted by a stack of charming, newly acquired books which I was to categorize, alphabetize, and shelf. Before I could even get to the second step however, I would have already set aside a small pile to purchase at my 30% off employee discount.

This habit, I knew, was not sustainable.

And so, I made myself a goal while working at the bookstore: during a shift, earn more money than I spent on it buying books.

I had eventually come to realize that books come and go, and for only certain ones do you spend the majority of your paycheck. For the rest of them, if it’s meant to be (and often even if it isn’t), the alluring titles will show up again.

Last week, I went to a book sale at the local library where hundreds of little delectables awaited me. These weren’t your typical battered ex-libris copies. Rather, they were well kept treasures, lovingly donated by patrons, the proceeds from which would fund the library’s buying of more books. These very respectable books were selling at $2 a hardback, $1 a trade paperback, and 50¢ a mass-market paperback. I brought my own bag with me.

I spent an hour browsing the carefully-marked tables of Literature, Biography, and Trade Paperback Fiction, ensuring I’d not forgotten to check under the tables for the boxes of books-in-waiting.

Overall, I exercised an amazing amount of self-restraint. I’d learned how to discipline the buying of books from working at the bookstore, not so much because of the sometimes exorbitant amounts of money I would witness certain customers drop in a single catalogue, but more so because of my own, humble live-and-learn experience.

Though, I’ll admit that when I walked in to the library sale and immediately saw the literature before me, I lapsed, and territorially started selected titles with my eyes even before I’d reached them. But as I made my balancing tower of babel, I realized that I did not need or perhaps even want these books. I knew how it would likely be. In a state of ecstasy, I would sift through these books, and return home with ones I thought I couldn’t live without, and they would sit on the shelf, largely unappreciated and unread. The temptation was fierce, but fleeting. I began putting my darlings back.

My continuous exposure to not only good quality books, but also high-end ones while working at the bookstore, served to put the library booksale in its proper perspective.

And so, I could trust myself at a library book sale. I left having spent only $7, with the majority of the books I’d purchased reserved as gifts for others.

I left with a clear understanding of experienced truth: there will always be more books.

But there’s an addendum.

After writing up to this point, thinking I’d finished this essay, I left for another library book sale in the city, with the intent on staying only 20 minutes and buying more books as gifts.

I soon discovered a table in the far corner marked “Essays and Belles Lettres” and my resolve slipped away . . . well, like a bibliophile in a bookstore.

These were real, literary, personal essays: two Best American Essays anthologies from prior years; one anthology of Canadian women’s essays; three books of essays with interesting titles by essayists I’ve never heard of; a book on the history of reading. And other titles and writers of belles lettres which not only caught my eye but satisfied my heart.

I left the library book sale, held in an ivy covered Victorian edifice, forty minutes later, with my bag not laden, but bursting with books.

And so, I amend.

Sometimes, you know that certain books won’t come around a second time.

I did, for the record, put six back.


Question: What kinds of books make you weak in the knees?