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Secondhand Bookshops: Their Significance, and Current Situation

From Women in European History

Marks & Co., the inspiration of Helene Hanff’s 1970 book 84, Charing Cross Road, was a bookshop specialized in secondhand books from “libraries and smaller collections of books,” [1] located on Charing Cross Road, London’s then “holy city of secondhand books.” [2] Secondhand bookshops display a distinct literary culture. Their impacts take on two separate paths: they offer a large variety of printed books, and contain sentimental values experienced only by genuine book lovers.

Secondhand bookshops are havens for book lovers; this book trade sells “all kinds of books.” [3] Although buyers will not experience the thrill of owning a new book, secondhand bookshops provide them with a different kind of excitement. Unlike modern retail bookstores, such as British bookstore chain Blackwell’s, and America’s Barnes & Noble, secondhand bookstores offer a vast pool of “in or out of print, common or rare,” [4] publications. The price range for secondhand books is generally lower than new, in-print books. On top of used books, avid book collectors can still look for first-editions of antiquated books from these modest bookshops. Most of the secondhand bookstores are “all quite small” [5] in size. In order to expand their business opportunities, these shops, like Marks & Co., advertised overseas in newspapers to attract international readers. As in the case of Helene Hanff, secondhand books reach further for readers of other countries through this method of sales, thus bringing literature to a wider audience.

Other than commercial advantages, secondhand books also preserve a sentimental value of reading. To a reader like Helene Hanff, previously read books connect book lovers of the past and present. In her letter to Marks & Co., she demonstrated her appreciation for the bookstore in keeping secondhand book-selling alive because she liked “the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone ha[d] called [her] attention to.” [6] In keeping with secondhand bookshops’ tradition, Helene Hanff mentioned her plan to “sprinkle pale pencil marks through [books] pointing out the best passages to some booklover yet unborn.” [7] This circulation of old and new books allows an unconscious intellectual exchange among readers. While this communication may not promote literature in an extensive way, it significantly strengthens values of the books by connecting readers personally, and emotionally.

Despite showing an edge that cannot be found in the mass-production of books, secondhand books are not as popular in twenty-first century as they were in Helene Hanff’s time. Bookshops that used to run the length of London’s Charing Cross Road have long been converted into restaurants or shops of other businesses. According to a 2006 news report on MSNBC, there is a trend that secondhand bookshops are declining in numbers, especially in the United Kingdom. [8] With the emergence of large book chains and internet booksellers, like eBay and Amazon, readers nowadays are more inclined to purchasing books new and online. [9] With a lack of preservation of secondhand bookshops, the colorful chapters Marks & Co. drew on book lovers may soon become history.


  1. Helene Hanff, 84, Charing Cross Road (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), cover page.
  2. Ken Donelson, “Books about Collecting Books for English Teachers,” The English Journal, Vol. 88, No. 5 (May, 1999): 89, http://www.jstor.org/stable/821783.
  3. Wright Howes, “Major Readjustments in the Retail Book Trade Their Causes and Significance,” The Library Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Jul., 1953): 230, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4304234.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Hanff, “Charing Cross”, 7.
  6. Ibid., 27.
  7. Ibid., 56.
  8. NBC news, “Web killing UK’s quirky secondhand bookshops,” November 27, 2006, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15918301/.
  9. Ibid.

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