Acceptable Condition: Some Used Books Are Not

A paperback in barely acceptable condition.

The used Penguin copy of Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds has chocolate stains on the pages.  I think they’re chocolate stains. 

And that is not the only book in disgraceful condition.  Three pages of The Grapes of Wrath are dotted with holes, apparently from a paperpunch. Then there is a slightly foxed paperback of Hesiod’s Theogony, with a confused family tree of the creation myth scribbled in purple ink on the back page.

Ecce, as they say in Latin. Lo!  These all came from the same decaying store.  It reeks of mustiness and dirt, like a basement rec room or a rag shop in Dickens.  The name is The Bookstore, or perhaps Books, Books, Books!   We suggest it be changed to Acceptable Condition, which of course means the opposite.

“The problem with M’s store,” said a friend, “is he/she will buy any book in any condition to have a conversation.”

There are some lonely-heart bookstore owners, but I have observed mostly crusty anti-social types.  My impression is they are sick of humanity and just want to read the books. 

I was pondering this the other day while considering my long history and complex relationship with used bookstores.

In graduate school, we occasionally sold  books. I sold them so I could afford  tampons for too-frequent periods. My husband also sometimes sold books.  A cockroach once crawled out of a copy of Derrida’s Of Grammatology  he was trying to sell.  (It wasn’t his fault:  the cockroach was a southern thing.) As you can imagine, the store owner found it unacceptable.  

There are some extraordinary used bookstores.  I had good luck in a chilly (now defunct) bookshop called Linda’s, located in a dilapidated concrete building in Dubuque. In this quasi-garage, I found a Penguin of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers, a Barbara Pym I didn’t have, even a pristine set of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, published by University of Chicago.

There used to be countless good-to-great used bookstores and there are still some:   Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha, Paperbacks and Pieces in Winona, and Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis.  I would also love to visit The Frugal Muse in Wisconsin, because of the name.

What are your favorite used bookstores?  And have you found anything untoward in the less good ones?   Bacon as bookmarks?

14 thoughts on “Acceptable Condition: Some Used Books Are Not”

  1. Some used bookshops have a section where the books in the worst condition are located – its their bargain corner. With a physical shop you can at least see the condition before buying – when I’ve bought on line sometimes the books arrive and they are not as described. I’m ok with battered covers but some of my purchases have smelled awful and so yelllow the text is hard to read. To me that’s not ‘acceptable’ quality

    1. I love the idea of a worst condition section. Yes, some online used bookstores mis-label the condition of their goods. In Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun writes with frustration of absent-minded employees forgetting to mail books and indignant customers. It’s kind of a nightmare for him!

      On Sun, Sep 8, 2019 at 4:14 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:


        1. I loved that book. Fascinating, well-written, and all the things I didn’t know about behind the scenes.

          On Wed, Sep 11, 2019 at 11:11 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:


              1. I had a subscription to his random book club for a year and felt guilty when I cancelled it but reality was that every book I received went straight into the charity box

  2. I’ve had the same experience as BookerTalk with on line purchases. Books described as ‘very good’ have turned up with loose pages and stains that I would prefer not to try and identify. I now have a blacklist of online stores I won’t use.

    1. Yes, some online bookstores are great, some are terrible. The smaller ones, if you can find them, are usually conscientious.

      On Sun, Sep 8, 2019 at 4:22 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:


  3. When we lived in Philadelphia a couple of years ago, The Book Trader was my go-to used book store. It was within walking distance (if you weren’t lugging home an armful of books), had great stock, and all the books I got there were in good condition or were appropriately less than better copies of the same book. They also had a trade-for-store-credit program.
    In Lancaster, PA, where we live now, I’ve been to DogStar Books. It’s a nice store, too, but I find that I’m buying most of my books at library book sales. There are several sales at different local libraries in the spring and fall, one next week, as a matter of fact.

    1. The Book Trader sounds idyllic. I do enjoy a good library sale, though, and come to think of it I do buy a lot of books at sales. Really, you can’t beat a 50-cent copy of a discarded library book.

      On Sun, Sep 8, 2019 at 8:11 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:


  4. Many years ago, second-hand booksellers here in the UK had quite a specific and carefully detailed set of descriptions for the condition of their books, which were pretty accurate and helpful. The advent of mass internet sales had dumbed it ill down to ‘acceptable, good, very good’ which are so vague as to be useless. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve felt duped: any book with any kind of annotation can’t possibly be ‘very good’ for instance. Some sellers are on my blacklist…

    It’s the untidy, unclassified bookshops I really dislike… I come out thinking I could have tidied them up with a bomb. But seriously, we are lucky to still have a lot of really good second-hand bookshops. If you are ever in York there are three or four worth anyone’s attention.

    1. The internet classifications ARE inexact. Some sellers write detailed descriptions, some just write “very good” under “very good.” I do (warily) order used books, but have learned to trust certain bookshops and avoid others. It’s better to go to a bookstore

      My only problem with favorite used bookstores is that they tend to stack books in the aisle on the floor. Also, I don’t know whether to concentrate on the shelves or the stacks.

      I don’t travel much, but if I ever get to York…

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