Non-essential Freedoms

The mild anarchy of piles of second-hand books reminds us of the simple, contingent encounters we have all missed during lockdown. 

The Old Book Shop on Pennsylvania Ave, by Thomas Fleming, 1902 © Topfoto.

Bookshops are back and that’s something to celebrate. Among all the kinds of ‘non-essential’ activities prohibited over the past year, browsing second-hand bookshops may not have been high up everyone’s list of yearned-for normality, but it was pretty high up on mine and going back into a favourite bookshop again for the first time a few weeks ago was an absolute joy. 

For some people, second-hand bookshops are the very definition of that dismissive label, ‘non-essential businesses’. Who needs them in the age of online warehouses that can get you any book you want within a day? But it’s because they’re ‘non-essential’ that they’re so enjoyable. The pleasure of visiting a good second-hand bookshop depends entirely on randomness and chance: you have no idea what you’re going to find. You might find a treasure; you might find a dud; you might find nothing at all. Finding out is the fun.

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