Two tales for the price of one in a used book

A used book offers not just the story printed on its pages, but a second story as well - the story of its owners.

Some people spend their money on chocolate or clothes; mine goes for books. The habit seems virtuous, but is surprisingly expensive, especially since I read about 10 books a month.

Unable to support my book-buying habit on a graduate student stipend, I was delighted when I discovered the solution - the secondhand bookshop. My first find was a pristine copy of "The Catcher in the Rye" for a quarter, and when I spied "A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury" for 75 cents, I knew I was on to a good thing.

It's been a few years since I left university, but I still retain a soft spot for secondhand bookstores. My bargain-hunter instincts find unparalleled fulfillment when I spot "Catch-22" in a cardboard box of assorted books for sale at a dime each. I spend the rest of the day in a happy glow of self-congratulation.

The advantages of used bookshops, however, go well beyond saving money. They carry out-of-print books that "fashionable" stores don't and won't stock. I spy the red braids of "Anne of Green Gables" everywhere, but what about L.M. Montgomery's "The Blue Castle"?

Secondhand bookstores (the low-key ones, not those where the owner has a broadband Internet connection and checks the selling price of each book on Amazon.com before slapping on a label) are sanctuaries for books that are hard to find yet affordable. I've bought Noel Streatfeild's "Circus Shoes," Richard Armour's "Twisted Tales From Shakespeare," and a rainbow of Andrew Lang's "Fairy Books," all for a few dollars.

Regular bookstores increasingly classify books with isolationist snobbery. Big Tomesby Great Writers are quarantined as far away from Harry Potter as possible, as though a virus of accessibility might somehow erode their literariness. Poetry is separated from graphic novels by jars of Suzanne Somers diet foods. An escalator slithers up from the literary journals to the cooking section.

Secondhand bookstores, however, are nonchalantly democratic. Tom Jones shares his shelf with Bridget Jones. Philip Roth rubs up against Nora Roberts, and - my personal favorite - Candace Bushnell sits next to Samuel Butler. What could be more appropriate than having "Sex and the City" stacked against "The Way of All Flesh"?

As a bonus, I often find unusual bookmarks inside used books. There's sometimes a receipt for shampoo or coffee, and once, a license renewal from the DMV. Some folks, of course, actually use real bookmarks - straight-edged strips with the original store's name and address. I've collected bookmarks from more than 11 countries so far; all but three have a quotation about reading for their tagline.

Then there are serendipitous treasures waiting to be discovered. The fine-boned skeleton of a leaf floated out from between the covers of "War and Peace." I found in "The Da Vinci Code" the card of a professor from Maine whom my husband had once met at a conference in Florida. And in a slim Penguin edition of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" I discovered a postcard dated 1972 - before I was born. The card showed a painting of a melancholy girl with faraway desert-dweller eyes. The back of the card bore the words, "I give this book to you because you are lovely," written with a fine-nibbed ink pen.

Philip G. of 1711 Elmvale Road was the former owner of my copy of "The Grapes of Wrath." He owned a labelmaker. G. Alexander, Chicago, July 7, 1998, wept (or spilled a little water) while reading "Beloved." Cecilia J. used to read "The Wizard of Oz," and drew a four-petaled flower on page 27. Christopher G. struggled with "Midnight's Children" and had to makes notes about the India-Pakistan war to help him along.

Regina M. checks the books she's read from an author's backlist; the only Carol Shields she'd missed by April 3, 2004, was "Dressing up for the Carnival."

While reading "To Kill a Mockingbird," A. Glover was accompanied by a small child, who found a pencil and was then no longer bored for a while.

And someone, somewhere, reading a used copy of "Ulysses" knows that a person called Niranjana Iyer drinks a lot of cafe latte, writes dates British style (with the day before the month) on the front inside cover of her books, uses pizza fliers for bookmarks, and stopped trying to understand the book after the first 200 pages.

A used book, then, offers not just the story printed on its pages, but a second story as well - the story of its owners. I know the people who've owned the books I now have, for I know where they live, what they buy, whom they love, and what they read. That's two tales for the (discounted) price of one in the pages of a used book - an offer this book lover cannot refuse.

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