“Alas,” wrote Henry Ward Beecher. “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore!” Mine is relatively strong at Barnes & Noble, because I know that if I resist a volume on one visit, and someone else buys it, an identical volume will pop up in its place like a plastic duck in a shooting gallery. And if I resist that one, there will be another day, another duck. In a secondhand bookstore, each volume is one-of-a-kind, neither replaceable from a publisher’s warehouse nor visually identical to its original siblings, which have accreted individuality with every change of ownership. If I don’t buy the book now, I may never have another chance. And therefore, like Beecher, who believed the temptations of drink were paltry compared with the temptations of books, I am weak.
At least my frailty places me in good company. Southey, noted one observer, could not pass a bookstall without “just running his eye over for one minute, even if the coach which was to take him to see Coleridge at Hampstead was within the time of starting.” Of Macaulay, it was said there was “no one so ready to mount a ladder and scour the top shelf for quarto pamphlets, or curious literary relics of a bygone age, and come down after an hour’s examination covered with dust and cobwebs, sending for a bun to take the place of his usual luncheon.” And when the eighteenth-century London bookseller James Lackington was a young man, his wife sent him out on Christmas Eve with half a crown – all they had – to buy Christmas dinner. He passed an old bookshop and returned with Yong’s Night Thoughts in his pocket and no turkey under his arm. “I think I have acted wisely,” he told his famished wife, “for had I bought a dinner we should have eaten it tomorrow, and the pleasure would have been soon over, but should we live fifty years longer, we shall have the Night Thoughts to feast upon.”
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman (Secondhand Prose, p. 150)