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Saturday, January 14, 2012


In an earlier post, I talked about discount bookshops and the treasures to be found there. Today I'm going to talk about treasures to be found second-hand.

Some of the books that have been closest to my heart weren’t brand new from the publishers at all, they were second hand, sometimes very old.

When I was at school, I used to go to school fetes, where people would donate books they wanted to get rid of, a win-win situation. For 20 cents, I acquired a proof copy of Mary Renault’s Alexander novel Fire From Heaven and Leon Uris’s Exodus in hardcover. Diving right into the books on offer, I found a velvet-covered 1900s copy of Romeo and Juliet. I gave that to a friend returning to America and she, in her turn, gave me a book she’s discovered at the fete:  a very old copy of The Volsunga Saga – you know, the Icelandic version of the story Wagner used for the Ring operas? Sigurd instead of Siegfried, Brynhild, Gudrun… I was thrilled to bits.

I found Howard Fast’s autobiographical The Naked God at a church fete near my place. It told me a lot more about the background to his books than I could have found elsewhere in those pre-Internet days.

I have some nineteenth century books – Byron’s poems and an 1876 works of Shakespeare turned up at a second-hand bookshop high up on Flinders Lane in Melbourne, as did a 19th century copy of the Aeneid, which had been given as a school prize. The shop is long gone now and I haven’t seen anything like it since; there are second-hand shops, of course, and my favourites belong to David and Penny Syber, who sell second-hand SF books in their shops near my home. Well, they sell more than that, but it’s what they specialise in. But not only that. Once, a workmate told me she had lost her copy of the autobiography of Franco Zefirelli, a book I owned and loved. Would you believe David had a copy parked in his back room?

At another second-hand shop in the Melbourne CBD, I have found a pile of Celtic-themed books, so helpful when I was researching background to the Faerie stuff in Wolfborn. I still wander in now and then and pounce on the latest title about Scottish or Irish fairy tales. It was in one of the books I found at that shop that I read an Irish version of Bluebeard. I remembered it when doing Juliet Marillier’s fairy tale workshop at Swancon last year, because the ending was so different. In it, the young wife succeeds in scrubbing away the bloodstains before the husband returns, with the help of some animals she has befriended. When he returns, he says, basically, “Oh, you obeyed me! Well done!” and they live happily ever after. Or as happy as you can be with a wife-killer in the house, anyway.

My sister Mary found me some books I really got excited about. Once, she gave me a second-hand Charles De Lint chapbook, of the kind he writes for family Christmas presents, then prints in chapbook form for sale, then mass market, because she knows I’m fond of his work. What she hadn’t realised was that it was signed! (Later, I was lucky enough to be invited to do a panel with him at a Swancon … great guy!)

Another time, she borrowed a second-hand book catalogue from a friend and ordered me a copy of A Yankee At The Court Of King Arthur by Mark Twain (the British title) because she knows I’m into things Arthurian.

Dear Mary. It turned out to be a first British edition, published in 1889, at the same time as the US one. It wasn’t signed, but I was NOT complaining!

In recent months I’ve acquired copies of old books by Murray Leinster, Bob Shaw, Henry Kuttner and other SF writers of the golden age, usually at Penny Syber’s shop in Windsor, which is right next to the tram stop, so I can go there after work if I’m willing to get off the train a couple of stops early and go on the tram.

My friend Anne is an expert at finding things in op shops. When I complained that I didn’t have any money left to order a copy of  Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword At Sunset for my library, she posted me an early hardcover she’d unearthed somewhere. Ulp! It’s now only in print in the US! I’m keeping that one; I’m going to order a paperback through Of Science And Swords bookshop in town as soon as my new budget comes through.

John, another friend of unbelievable search skills, sent me a Robin Hood TV series annual from the 50s, while my friend Gaye found me another, with a different Robin. Bliss!

New is nice, but for me, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of discovering the old.


Stephanie said...

I love secondhand finds, too, Sue, and believe it or not I'm also the proud owner of a signed Charles de Lint chapbook! I bought it for a few dollars from a guy who was moving to Singapore, and had no idea that it was a signed, limited edition. :)

Another thing that intrigues me is when people leave little tidbits in their books--book marks, train tickets and so on. Or when a book has been dedicated to someone--you do have to wonder what happened for them to give it up!

(Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting)

Sue Bursztynski said...

I haven't found the tidbits yet, but I have had dedicated copies. One find I didn't mention was when I was in Israel some years ago and found, in a Tel Aviv secondhand shop, two Star Trek paperbacks dedicated by the author to an aunt. That must have had a story behind it! I'd like to think it was merely that Auntie really had no interest in Star Trek and turfed it out with other books when the house was looking overcrowded. I hope it was that and not, perhaps, the family doing it after she passed on.
At another bookshop, in Jerusalem, I found two ancient Galaxy magazines, with a serialised novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I got two parts out of three and couldn't get the book till I was back in Oz!