Hunting for Second-Hand Books Around the World

Traditional Penguin books in a row

There’s nothing like the joy of finding a great pre-loved book – set me up in a branch of Oxfam or a car boot sale and I’m happy as a sandboy, browsing through the goods. I also find they make great souvenirs when I’m travelling (not so much souvenirs for other people, as not everyone appreciates a dog-eared Penguin classic when they were hoping for a nice fridge magnet). Over the last few years I’ve been on quite a few bookish adventures, and these are some of the best…

Reykjavik's popular market as seen from the fish stall with hakarl
Not as much to read in the food section of this market, but still worth a peek.


Kolaportid flea market (Tryggvagata 19) happens to be running during my stay, so I drag my friend over to have a look – she’s been patiently waiting every time I’ve stopped to take photos of Icelandic street art or unusual signs in the last few days, and yet again she doesn’t grumble as I ask for another stopping point. We walk down wide aisles dotted with plastic commodities, vintage coats and units full of frozen fish that make us gag a little with their telltale smell. It’s an eclectic mix, but this market works.

Learning how to read palms with a manual in Icelandic
Getting a bit mystic with this alternative book in Iceland.

Finally, a bookworm’s emporium reveals itself and I’ve found my nirvana… until I look at the prices. This is serious stuff, way beyond my budget. Intimidated and cash-strapped, I switch allegiance to a less professional stall with a casual pile of reading material chucked on a table like an afterthought. A manual on palm reading sticks out like a sore thumb amongst long-discarded political tomes, and it’s mine for small change. Sold.


Brattle Bookshop exterior shot
Spot any literary greats on the mural?


I stumble upon the outdoor section of the Brattle Bookshop (9 West St.), with its vivid mural starring literary greats like Toni Morrison, Franz Kafka and Italo Calvino. This unassuming gap in the built-up street is a haven for reading junkies. Pressed for time, my browsing opportunities aren’t what they should be, so I don’t have the chance to buy today, but it’s tempting to pick something well out of my comfort zone thanks to the eclectic range on offer.

Outside book market in Massachussetts
When the weather’s in your favour, take a walk around the extensive outdoor stock here.

Some shoppers might moan that the indoor selections get better treatment and organisation, especially on the prestigious third floor where rare tomes are sold for thousands of dollars, but the cheaper books exposed to the elements typically cost just €1-5, which is roughly the equivalent of buying a coffee and a doughnut at one of the trendy cafes in the Downtown Crossing area.


Where to buy Jewish Museum tickets and old books in Prague
My tour guide points out this Antikvariat.


The city has quite a few Antikvariáts – antique bookshops – but this one, the Judaica (Široká 37/7), is a brief stop on a walking tour I’ve taken to get to know the lay of the land. The Judaica serves as a ticket office for all the area’s multi-site Jewish museum, so I return after the tour to pay my entry fee for the Pinkas Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery. Once inside I find myself wandering further into the recesses of the shop, resolving to pick something as a souvenir despite the obvious language barrier. Here I can only judge a book by its cover (how shallow am I?!) and a green and white stylised print paperback with a shiny finish leaps out at me. I take it to the till and am naturally spoken to in Czech, leaving me red-faced and flummoxed. I hate my goggle-eyed English naïveté.

Conspiracy thriller sold in Prague bookshop
Czech out this book… if you’re familiar with the language.

My purchase needs serious Googling to determine what it’s about – it turns out I’m now the lucky owner of Roman Affair II, by Italian filmmakers Massimo Felisatti and Fabio Pittorru, telling the story of two police detectives dealing with their corrupt superiors. I can’t get hold of an English copy online, so I guess I’ll never know how it turns out, but I’ll keep it on a shelf at home in case I get round to learning Czech one of these days (you never know, right?).


Paintings and books in a junk shop, Lisbon
Artwork and trinkets on sale inside this compact vintage shop.


On the way to visit a famous kitsch homeware shop, A Vida Portuguesa (11 Rua Anchieta), I come across a tiny vintage store spilling out onto the pavement opposite. From the outside it seems little more than a hole in the wall selling the contents of someone’s house, but I can’t resist taking a proper look. It’s dark inside, owing to the sheer amount of stuff crammed into the space, including an old TV set surrounded by glass cabinets and garish oil paintings, plus small stashes of paperbacks dotted around. Somehow there is order in the chaos and it’s fun to wander through, trying to work out where everything came from.

Trashy chick lit book with painted cover
Souvenirs from Lisbon, including the romance novel ‘A Ternura Infinita’ (The Infinite Tenderness).

The shop owner is friendly and somehow anticipates my utter lack of Portuguese before I’ve even opened my mouth. “English?” He says, before leading me to a relevant shelf, which includes a stash of crime thrillers. I bypass a life of crime in favour of an American self-help book from the 1970s. At €1, I don’t really mind if it turns out to be utter rubbish, but I’m willing to give it a go. As I head to the counter I spot another shelf , home to some very vintage trashy romance novels in Portuguese. Time to pick the one with the most lurid cover, The Infinite Tenderness by J. Aguilar Catena, as another quirky souvenir.

N.B: I also track down the temporary pop-up shop Livraria Sá da Costa (corner of Rua Serpa Pinto/Garrett), where I buy a seriously old Portuguese-English language guide, and Livraria Bertrand (1200-203 Rua Garrett), the world’s oldest bookshop. Basically I’m in love with Lisbon now.


Market stall goods under Waterloo Bridge
Pick up a Penguin paperback beside the Thames.

More second-hand bookshops and markets around the world

  • One of the best spots in the UK is Hay-on-Wye, home to plenty of specialist independent stores and the famous Hay literary festival; in London you shouldn’t miss the daily Southbank market under Waterloo Bridge
  • Gould’s Book Arcade in Newtown, near Sydney, is said to be Australia’s largest second-hand and rare book retailer; alternatively, Melbourne holds a used book market every Saturday in Fed Square, with over 5,000 titles to choose from
  • In Istanbul, the Guardian recommends Denizler Kitabevi, as well as the Aslihan Pasaji shopping arcade, where you can pick up a bargain paperback amongst the stalls

If you have a favourite place to pick up old reading material, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell everyone about it below!