In the digital age, is there still a place for the second-hand book shop? David Herkt talks to those who are keeping the love alive.

The scent of old books is rich and complex. Several contemporary perfume companies have even attempted to duplicate it as a fragrance.

In the Library by Christopher Brosius, for example, is "a warm blend of Russian & Moroccan Leather Bindings, Worn Cloth and a hint of Wood Polish".

Paperback by Demeter has "a touch of the musty smell of aged paper ... with a sprinkling of violets and a dash of tasteful potpourri."

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But what of the second-hand book-trade itself, especially in the internet age? Do we buy books any more, let alone smell them? When best-sellers are likely to be how-to-do-it manuals on ways to de-clutter your home, what place do pre-loved books have in the scheme of things?

Hard To Find in Onehunga Mall is an old two-storeyed shop with nine rooms of books. Piles of paperbacks totter on the floors. The stairs are steep. Torn Victorian wallpaper reveals the scrim.

A huge former TV-prop throne with skulls occupies one room, surrounded by detective novels. There is an entire room of science-fiction. New Zealand literature fills another.

"Even though we have a big shop the space is not enough," says Shalon Ewington. "We can't have everything out on the shelves. We have a shipping container out the back full of books waiting to come in."

Ewington fell into her job by chance. "I honestly did not know there was a career in second-hand books."A shopping trip with her family when she was 16 led to Hard To Find. She asked for a part-time job. Twenty-nine years later she is the shop buyer and manager.

"If you go to new bookshops they haven't got the full range of things," she observes of the stock, "even Charles Dickens. Someone was telling me that Ernest Hemingway is not even on the library shelves now, and that you have to ask for him."

Hard To Find is owned by Warwick Jordan who lives in Dunedin where he runs the company's other store and their website, New Zealand's largest online second-hand book marketplace. The company estimates it has half a million books in total.

"It is such an interactive job," Ewington says. "We have made really good friends with some of our customers and you feel part of their life."

People often phone with books for sale, so Ewington is frequently on the road.

"Once I was going through a tea-chest of books and I was thinking there was probably nothing interesting. They were just medical books from the 1960s and 1970s. And then I thought I could spy this leather at the bottom of the box and as I dug down a bit further, I discovered there was an early edition of Grey's Anatomy so that was great." First printings of the famous medical text sell for thousands of dollars.

"I think that showed me that you've got to get to the bottom of the box. You never know what might be there. Never give up half-way down."

 Maud Cahill of Jason Books on O'Connell St. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Maud Cahill of Jason Books on O'Connell St. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Jason Books

is another Auckland landmark for book-hunters. In O'Connell St, in the central city, it is a spacious, well-ordered and well-lit shop. Customers range from back-packers to property developers and university academics.

Maud Cahill has owned Jason's since 2002. The shop was established in 1969, and is now Auckland's oldest. It features a notable range of New Zealand publications and first editions.

Cahill's first big buy came from the estate of a Helensville woman. "I had no idea what I was going to encounter. When I got there, it was an old house and it was full of books. She had made it her mission to collect copies of every New Zealand book published. She had rooms full of other books. She thought she was going to gift them to a library, but by the time she died, libraries no longer wanted those kinds of gifts.

"I had just taken over the shop. I wasn't sure of my financial position. I had to walk in there and decide. Afterwards I fell into my car and I could see that we were going to have to make six, eight, 10 trips to Helensville.

"She supplied me with an array of books, and it was this really interesting array. Unfortunately, she wasn't there to talk about it.'

"Financially it was extremely hairy, but it was a great beginning."

Like all second-hand bookshop owners, she is having to deal with the internet marketplace.

"I sell on the internet, but that is just through Abebooks. It is a bit of a necessary evil because it is run by Amazon who I actually think are quite corrosive of a lot of things. It is also extremely expensive. They charge you enormous amounts of money: if you think about it you could get really upset about how much of each book they're taking."

What sells? "Classic literature. People often can't get copies of really classic literature, and if you look at what sells in fiction, it is often the newer stuff or the really classic literature and you'll sell something again and again and again."

Rachel Pope in Browsers Quality Secondhand Bookshop, Hamilton. Photo / Alan Gibson
Rachel Pope in Browsers Quality Secondhand Bookshop, Hamilton. Photo / Alan Gibson

In Hamilton, a visitor to Browser's Bookstore on Victoria St is confronted with the highest bookshelf in any New Zealand bookshop.

"It is 7.5 metres high," laughs owner Rachel Pope. It is a point of difference and an attraction in its own right. People come in to ask about it. The higher shelves are stacked using a scissors-lift.

Pope trained originally as a lawyer, but like all the shop-owners and managers, she is enthusiastic about books. "I like literature, and I like going in and wandering through the shelves and thinking, 'Who is that?'"

She describes going to make a buy from a deceased estate of a woman who had been the head librarian in Hamilton, whose husband was a teacher and a published amateur writer. There were lots of New Zealand first editions, not especially valuable, though they did have dust-wrappers.

"But slipped into one of those books was this little pamphlet by New Zealand writer, Frank Sargeson, and I found out later it was his first ever publication. It was called Conversation with my Uncle," says Pope.

"And honestly, it is a little tiny pamphlet. Then the third time I looked at it, I saw this little scribble on the front and it was his signature. It was his first publication and it was signed. I did send a top-up cheque to the people who sold it to me."

Hayden Glass of The Open Book in Ponsonby. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Hayden Glass of The Open Book in Ponsonby. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Located in Ponsonby Rd, is Auckland's newest second-hand bookstore - the Open Book. The shop's genesis is contained in two screengrabs on their blog.

Hayden Glass says to Julie Fry "have I not told you I am toying with the idea of buying a secondhand bookstore?"

"No" replies Julie. Precisely five minutes later, Hayden comments "well, co-investors are welcomed with open arms". Julie says: "Immediate reaction is yes".

Glass records the consequences in surprising detail. There are graphs and pie-charts. "Typically, the worst day of the week is Thursday, and the best is Saturday," he writes. In the year they have been open, they have sold 6133 books. The best-selling genres are literary fiction (including classics) at 18 per cent of the total, and genre fiction (crime fiction, etc) also figures at 18 per cent.

"I've always been interested in books,"says Glass. "They connect us as stories from the past. There is something different about the experience of reading a book, less anxious and less interactive than online worlds. You are stepping out of the world. You don't get notifications on your book and I think there is something important about that."

Some people also enjoy the hunt, whether it is for a rare first edition, an automotive manual, or a local history. "I remember a guy who was looking for sci-fi and fantasy sets," Glass says. "He said he never starts reading any until he's got the lot. If it is a 15-book series, he wants to make sure he has all 15. He doesn't buy them new - which would be one solution to his problem, so partially what he was doing was enjoying the search.

"The heart of the business is second-hand books but ... the other thing is to give back to the local community by providing a place where things can happen."

All the booksellers have noted things they've found in books. Glass keeps a box of the various things people use for bookmarks. Ewington found a thousand dollars between the pages of a book, money she returned to the family. There are letters of love and break-up. Cahill has boxes of paper ephemera found in books, some of historical importance.

Second-hand books are not simply recycled goods, they come with stories, dates, and inscriptions. Or sometimes sand from a beach or a famous Kiwi's signature. Buying a second-hand book is not only buying an object, but also a unique item of time.