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Second Hand Books Online

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Buried Treasure
(This piece appeared in the Nov 2001 issue of IT Malaysia, a magazine I am working for at the moment)


Second-hand books. To many hip readers, these words represent the amount of read and unread books that they stash away after purchasing it off the shelf because some publication named it as the top ten best-seller. To some, it was the kind that they could afford. And to others, like me, They are gems or long-forgotten treasures overlooked, and often, under-appreciated by time.

I have long been frequenting the few second hand book outlets in both KL and PJ. That was before I gave up searching the mounds of book stacked according to genres as conceived by the owner. Some humour-related books were found amongst a stack of couples relationship books, which may be correct after all. Frustrations after frustrations fell on my head like loads of encyclopaedia Britannica. I ceased going to used book outlets and months of despair followed, so I repaired to a monastery (Kidding).

Somebody introduced me to the online second hand book sites. The rest, as they say, was history - incidents mainly consisting of depleted bank accounts and multiple calls from credit card centres.

I first sought the aid of Allbookstores.com, which can be considered as a reliable portal. It searches for the used books and lists them in comparison amongst the more prominent sites like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and sites dedicated on used and rare books like Alibris, half.com and, oh yes, have anyone heard of Fatbrain.com?

My favourite, so far, is Alibris.com. To test the database of these sites, I would usually perform a search on a title of a book written by an author dead fifty years ago, or even a rarer title never published since the beginning of last century. These tests might make a local used-book dealer stammer and consider switching career to farming, but true enough Alibris got it.

What makes it a joy for book-addicts (no relation with bookworms, which may have close association with worms) to surf a site like Alibris, is the fact that it never disappoints. True, it may not apply once some of the prices are flashed, but the mere fact that the books existed makes your day.

Price factor is another issue. The cheapest book I bought at this site was priced at USD 2.95. Coupled with the USD 4.95 for shipping, you might have to fork out USD 7.90 or roughly calculated price of RM 32, which is not bad considering that some of the prices found in the local bookstores can send chills down your spine, or cause a stroke or two.

The time taken to ship it may be long, from a week to ten days. The fastest I have received was within six days. Of course, it is not as fast as compared to getting it off the shelves of your local bookstore, which is as fast as your level of greed. Again, the question here is the availability. What you can't get in Times, MPH or Kinokuniya (Forget the likes of for-the-schoolkids Popular and Big Bookshop), you can get in Alibris and other good online used-book sites. What is worse is that the physical bookstores cater only to those with a penchant to read best-sellers.

Books that you can rest assured will never grace local bookstores are titles like The Law by Friedrich Bastiat, The Shadow of The Torturer by Gene Wolfe, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card,  Mother Tongue; English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson, The International Jew by Henry Ford, and many other fascinating titles - depending on your level of fascination.

There are a few online local bookstores that could do all avid book readers a great big favour by going offline. Nevermind of the fact that availability is perpetually a non-issue, but the agony here is that no used books are offered and the pricing factor seems to be inclusive of their meals and laundry bills.

Sometimes we are willing to pay if we find the right treasure, and for sake of convenience online bookstores have proven to be a worthy alternative. The only thing that bothers me in using the foreign online bookstores is the duration it takes to ship the books here. It would be wonderful if the online stores could be up to par with their foreign counterparts. That would definitely be a boon for life. For mine, at least.