Second-hand Dreams: Used Books to the Rescue

‘We Indians are value conscious, not cost conscious,’ we like to tell each other. But the notion of what may or may not be ‘value’ is often wildly different for each of us. Is a Rs 25 lakh Rolex chronograph, good value? What about a Rs 1.4 lakh iPhone? Or a Rs 20,000 pair of Nike running shoes? Or Rs 10,000 for a meal for two, at a top-end 5-star hotel? When it comes to spending, financial prudence can often be at loggerheads with emotions and aspirations, and sometimes there’s no reasoning with the latter. 

With books, as with most other things, people can be a bit funny with money. I have friends who will happily buy a Rs 25,000 bottle of whiskey but wince at the prospect of buying a book that costs Rs 2,500. At the other end of the spectrum, one person I know will, without a second thought, spend Rs 50,000 on buying a book he deems rare – and hence collectible – but will grumble and whine when he has to spend Rs 5,000 on a pair of reading glasses that allow him to actually read all those books he buys. Value conscious Indians? ‘What to do men, we are like that only,’ as my friends in Bombay will say.

While I can’t say I’ve ever had a large disposable income (journalism is a poorly-paid profession, or at least it was, for me), my own spending on books has been profligate, maybe even a bit irresponsible. Back in the late-1990s, when I first moved to Bombay as a rookie journalist on a meagre salary, I used to be obsessed with big, fast superbikes and the glossy foreign magazines that featured those bikes. In Lucknow, where I came from, the latest issues of these magazines simply weren’t available (though you could, at times, pick up issues that were one or two years old for a couple of bucks, at some shops in Hazratganj). But Bombay had everything. For a hefty price. The latest issues of the imported magazines, which I loved, used to cost Rs 500 each and I would happily buy two or three of these every month. This, at a time when the rent for my PG room, in Mahim, was Rs 4,500 per month. I would travel second-class in the local trains and eat vada pav for dinner if I had to, but I had to have those magazines. That was non-negotiable.

I also had other interests – computers, technology, digital music, animation and others – which meant buying yet more expensive foreign magazines. But since the bike magazines came first, and there was hardly any money left after buying those, the hunt for other books and magazines necessitated roaming the bylanes of Mahim, Matunga, Bandra, Juhu and Andheri, scouring roadside second-hand bookstalls for treasures that I could scoop up on a tight budget. Back then, my office used to be on DN Road (very close to VT station), and in those days there used to be dozens of streetside book/magazine vendors (for both new and used books and magazines) lining the sidewalks all the way from Churchgate to VT. In the first 10-12 days of every month, when my salary account was relatively healthy, lunch would often be a hearty biryani, after which I would walk to those streetside book stalls for a bit of browsing, netting a bargain or two on days when I got lucky. (In the second half of the month, with fast diminishing reserves of cash, lunch would be downgraded to plain old dal roti or a masala dosa. And no more books or magazines until the next payday.) But even on days when I wasn’t buying anything, just browsing through all those streetside bookstalls near Churchgate and DN Road made me very happy. Today, twenty-five years later, those memories still make me smile.

With the rise of the Internet and dozens of freely accessible websites coming up over the years, I now no longer buy any foreign (or Indian, for that matter) magazines. But, of course, I still buy lots of books. Not from bookshops though. Over the last few years, my visits to actual bookshops have declined to almost zero – I hardly ever go to bookshops these days. Much as I hate to admit it, the Internet has just made things too easy – without leaving the comfort of my living room, I can log in to Amazon, browse hundreds of books, read excerpts using the ‘look inside’ feature and order the books I want, which are home delivered for free in the next 2-3 days. While I do love bookshops – both, the big, fancy, air-conditioned ones, as well as small, streetside setups with a mix of new and used books – online is where I shop for books these days.

Apart from the sheer convenience, there’s one more thing about buying books online, which sweetens the deal further. The easy availability of cheap, second-hand books that are often in very good or even excellent condition. Earlier this week, I bought two books from a used books website: Jonny Bealby’s For a Pagan Song and Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs, for the princely sum of Rs 398. The books arrived in two days and both are in excellent, almost brand-new condition. New, these books are priced at Rs 11,274 (WHAT?!?!?) and Rs 1,702 respectively, on Amazon. Don’t know about you but paying 400 bucks for a pair of used books that would have cost Rs 13,000 new seems a pretty good deal to me.

I have often bought used books over the last five years from various websites, though the difference in price between new and used isn’t always as dramatic as it was in the case above. Still, the difference can easily be anywhere between a few hundred to two or three thousand rupees per book, which adds up to quite a bit when you’re buying dozens of books every year. A bit of judicious spending never hurt anyone. Plus, the fact that the used books I’ve bought have always (with just one or two exceptions) turned up in very good condition makes buying used a great deal.

In recent years, especially after the Covid pandemic, I feel a lot of books that were reasonably priced earlier have now become outrageously expensive – at least that’s the way it seems to be on Amazon. However, Amazon itself also lists used books, which are often a great bargain. When you search for a book on Amazon, it will show prices for both new and, if available, used options, also mentioning the condition (acceptable, good, very good, like new etc.) that the used book is in. And if not Amazon, there are a dozen other websites that offer new books at reduced prices or used books that are quite affordable.

A fortunate few may not have any spending limits at all, but most of us would probably have at least a rough figure in mind regarding the maximum amount of money we’d be happy to spend on books every month. So, would I still buy used books if my own monthly budget was double or even three times of what it is now? That’s easy – an emphatic ‘yes!’ I’m not a miser and I’m not stingy, but I do like to be careful with my money (in fact, my deepest regret in life is that it took me 25 years to understand the value of being careful with money!). Saving thousands of rupees a month does me no harm, especially when buying used allows me to buy and read most of the books that are on my wishlist, which would otherwise not be possible. Of course, I still buy new books when those aren’t prohibitively expensive, but also buying used books has allowed me to expand and extend my collection, and has given me a world of happiness. Now, when I see a book that I want listed for something like Rs 10,000 on Amazon, that doesn’t close the door – it’s only the beginning of the hunt, the quest to find that book on one of the many used books websites and, somehow, get it on my bookshelf.

Buying used has allowed me to read whatever I want, without having to worry about the price. And believe me, whether you buy a book used or new, the happiness it brings to your life is exactly the same. Second-hand dreams? Why not!

Sameer Kumar

Amazon also lists used books but apart from that, here’s a list of used books websites in India, which you may want to look at:

Buy Second Hand Books
Bookish Santa
Used Books Factory
Second Hand Books India
Best of Used Books
Books by Kilo
Books Wagon (only new books, but usually 10-15% cheaper than Amazon)

Please note, this not an exhaustive list. There might be many other websites selling used books, which are not listed here.

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