Book Utopia in a senior cit’s centre

There is nothing like the quiet desperation of a second-hand book sale. The air is filled with question marks rising from the long tables lined with spines and boxes filled with blocks of beautiful words. Glory of glories, the smell of old paper, the dull flick of pages and thick clap of a hardcover as it snaps shut in the hand.

Eltham’s annual Oxfam book sale, held this Saturday past, is one of the best second-hand book sales around. Everything is $2, except the really special books which are priced from $3 up. I arrived not long after 8am (when the doors opened) and the room was already full of punters shuffling between aisles, shoulder to shoulder, seeking out that gem, that bargain, that prize missing from their personal collection.

I join the long line of people browsing a table entitled ‘fiction’, and quickly realise I am following a book dealer. He moves faster than the rest of us, fills a box in the same time it takes for me to peruse two or three books. As I watch him I notice that other buyers are following him, peering into his filled boxes, watching what he picks up and puts back. I become aware of a sense of urgency amongst this otherwise demure crowd. We skim over the spines of books, lined up like museum bones, and we pick at them like hungry vultures.

We are all thinking the same thing: What if someone else gets THAT special book, the one that I am searching for – the recent release, the hard cover version, the award winner – amongst this plethora of paperbacks? The thought strikes fear into this group of ordinary book lovers and turns them wary, if not a little desperate. Someone in front of us returns a title to the bench and all around eye it carefully. It could be a gem they have rationalised out of their collection, or perhaps they’ve remembered they already have it. Two or three people pick it up and put it back. We all move on.

We trip and bump around each other, our fattening bags are like the distended bellies of scavengers filling with carrion, and are taking up valuable browsing space in the narrow aisles. A gap opens up at the literature table, we rush to look, ever fearful we might miss something wonderful while we have been glazing over the trashy old romance novels. My bag is full to brimming and I still haven’t made it to the biography, history or kids sections yet. But at $2 a pop – as my hubby wisely counselled – if you think you want it, grab it. You can always put it back.

‘Ha ha,’ a woman behind me cries to her friend, ‘Exactly what I was looking for and it’s the second book I’ve picked up.’ A handful of people move toward her table, hoping for lost treasures. I pick up some gifts, political books for my step-son, haiku for a colleague, conversations with famous Australians for my hubby, and then, the piers de resistance, the kids section. How I adore kids books. I find a rare Richard Bach (There’s no such thing as far away), a very old collection of Grimm’s fairytales, The Snow Queen, The Yearling and  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

My green bags are bursting and I’m staggering under their weight. I sit down, review the titles, cast off a couple and line up at the sales counter. I have a total of 31 books. They come to a grand total of $61, which cleans my wallet out (except for the receipts). As I drive home I can’t help but wonder what I missed. What glories got carried out in other people’s bags and boxes, what titles did I miss in the rush of the skim, in the boxes under the tables that were too difficult to get to? But I can’t dwell on that now. My mission is to find a home, somewhere in my already crowded bookshelves, for the literary treasures now in my proud possession.

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