Welcome to the Fold, Little Book: How I Tend to My Secondhand Purchases

I’ll always remember a moment in fifth grade when I returned a book I’d borrowed to a classmate at the lunch table. It was one of those Griffin and Sabine-type books with lots of paper flaps and pull-out envelopes, and as she looked it over she marveled, “Rebecca always returns my books in better condition than when I lent them to her.” I still pride myself on how I care for physical books. I don’t write in them (except to correct errors), dog-ear pages, or break the spines if I can possibly help it, and I’ve been known to unfold pages and/or reshelve books correctly while browsing in a library or secondhand bookshop.

During the 5+ years I was a library assistant in London, my all-time favorite task was repairing books. Eventually I ended up as the repairs coordinator for our site, doing most of the day-to-day repairs and running training sessions for new hires. Repairing books felt a lot like arts and crafts and thus was fundamentally different from any of our other work, which generally involved computers, customers, or heavy lifting. And it was hardly costly: apart from special book-friendly glue and tape, the only supplies were paintbrushes, rubber bands and scrap paper. The most high-tech we got was photocopying missing pages from another copy of a book and cutting them to size so they could be inserted to fill the gap.

I later did a summer placement in the Special Collections division, where we never repaired the rare books ourselves. Those were all seen to by off-site specialists – for a pretty penny, so we only sent a few at a time as the budget allowed. I wouldn’t attempt to fix an ailing antiquarian hardback myself (though a friend once got me a copy of The Care and Feeding of Books Old and New: A Simple Repair Manual for Book Lovers to thank me for being a bridesmaid in her wedding – it’s currently in a box in America), but I often do minor cleaning and sprucing up on the secondhand books I purchase.


Here’s my makeshift toolkit:

(Step one, though – which just requires fingers – is unfolding any dog-eared or otherwise crinkled pages.)


An eraser: I erase stray marks and (sometimes) previous prices from inside the front cover.


Goo Gone: Do you know about this amazing American cleaning product?! It completely removes the remnants of price labels and anything else persistently sticky, and smells pleasantly of orange oil.


Paper towels: A damp paper towel is all that’s necessary for removing coffee rings and other dubious substances from a book’s cover.


Clear tape: I don’t own the library-approved brand (Scotch Book Tape), but for patching small tears on paperback covers or holding the spines of hardback cookbooks together, this Poundland purchase does the job.


Translucent mending tape (acid-free filmoplast) for using inside books: I found out about this through my library repair work. It’s sticky on one side and either glossy or matte on the other; you can see the printed words through it. I use this for repairing torn pages and reaffixing detached paperback covers. It’s made by Neschen and Gresswell, and can be purchased on Amazon.


Heavy books: I get out a weighty stack for flattening a book that has curly, water-damaged pages or a creased cover.


Things that can’t be fixed – or at least I have no idea how to fix them: A persistent cigarette or mold smell; booklice; foxing (the brown specks that form along a text block); greasy fingerprint stains on a text block or matte cover.


Are you happy to take your secondhand books as they come, or do you also try to rehabilitate them in some way? I don’t mind minor signs that a book has been pre-owned and loved, such as a previous owner’s name written inside the cover, a very few underlines or marginalia in pencil, or a left-behind bookmark or other memento, but I do prefer not to see the remnants of what they were snacking on as they read…

30 responses

  1. Pencil marks and comments are part of the book’s history and identity – I’d always leave them, even if their abundance were to make the book unreadable (unlikelyI’’d buy the book in that case, though). Everything else: gone!


    1. I’m okay with a previous owner’s name and a bit of marginalia, but if I saw extensive underlining or highlighting I wouldn’t buy that copy — I’ve fallen foul of this with some online secondhand purchases (and got them refunded for that reason, as the condition wasn’t noted).


  2. I’m loving the sound of Goo Gone – wondering if there is anything similar in England? Lakeland would sell it if anywhere!
    I do clean my books up a little. It makes me shudder when I see pages turned over.
    I must ask you – do you correct errors in Library books? I confess to doing so but in pencil. And if it is a recent book do you contact the author/publisher?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Penny — yep, I sure do correct library books in pencil! I can’t help myself. I don’t think I’d bother contacting the publisher unless they were a very small operation. Elliot & Thompson did once contact me when I’d mentioned lots of mistakes in one of their books and I wrote back with a full list. I was happy to help make a future edition look better! I’m considering contacting the editor of a forthcoming book about a flagrant homonym slip, though maybe it’s too late to get that corrected. When you find mistakes in a proof copy, you always hope they’ll be corrected before the real thing.

      I don’t know about Goo Gone — I presume it’s American-only. My bottle I brought back has lasted me years already. I think of it as the land of magical cleaning products. Every time we visit we take my mother clothes we can’t get the stains out of and she gets them out somehow.


  3. I love this post! I absolutely adore other signs of previous ownership and write my own name in most purchases, along with the date and where I bought it. If there are other names and dates, so much the better. However, precious books, like my Persephones and my Iris Murdoch first editions, I pop a piece of paper with the note on inside. I wipe clean any coffee rings etc but only rub out prices if I’m giving the book to a friend.

    There’s no cure for foxing.

    The smell of smoke and oil can be removed quite nicely by placing the book in a sealed ziplock bag containing some fuller’s earth cat litter – the odour absorbing white kind is best. I know this works!

    I try to return books in as good condition as they were loaned, and even replaced a book I got a splash of tomato pasta sauce on once. I do fold corners over on my own books but try not to – and I wouldn’t with a friend’s book or a persephone. I tend to use post-it markers to point to stuff I want to remember for a review.

    Oh, and I have totally drawn relationship diagrams in the backs of my Iris Murdoch paperbacks … in pencil.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ooh, great tip for getting smells out! I have one book that came from an Amazon marketplace seller and reeks of cigarette smoke. Do you know if other kinds of cat litter would work? Our cat uses a vegetable fiber one that looks
      like wood chips.

      My favorite previous name spotting was a copy of Milton I picked up in a secondhand store: it had belonged to a scientist who advised on my high school internship.

      I generally don’t write in my books, but if it’s one I know I’m keeping I might keep notes in pencil inside the front cover.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve only ever had success with the fuller’s earth kind, I’m not sure the wood chip or vegetable one would work. I suppose it’s worth buying a small bag for this purpose! Let me know what works!

        I forgot to say in the original reply, I have hiliarious notes from my student self pointing out the blindingly obvious in some of my Hardy novels, and I have a copy of “The Second Sex” with my pencil annotations up to about p. 100 … which is where I obviously gave up!


    2. I’ll see if I can find a small bag to use just for that.

      We have a copy of Ted Hughes’s selected poems that must have been (very selectively) studied in secondary school — you can see the teenage handwriting on about three of the best-known poems.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Afraid I’m guilty of writing in books… I underline passages and make notes but I don’t leave remnants of my lunch there! Have you read Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons? (It’s a lovely story about second-hand books).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I only underlined in my college textbooks. I can’t say why I don’t do it anymore. In some cases it’s because I know I’ll resell or regift a book, and I want to leave as little trace in it as possible.

      I loved Swimming Lessons! It made it onto my best-of-year list last year. I’ve found some inscriptions in secondhand books that are almost like letters…but no actual letters.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. These are greats tips! I will definitely be trying Goo Gone on some of my books soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My colleague Faye recommends hairspray for greasy fingerprint marks on matte covers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Huh. Fascinating! I don’t have any hairspray, but maybe I can swipe my mother-in-law’s the next time we’re down visiting them and attempt some emergency de-fingerprinting on Karl Ove Knausgaard (metaphorically speaking)!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Now I’m laughing at imagining you being like “Karl, HOLD STILL”

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I must confess I’m pretty hard on my books. I turn corners, underline and scrawl notes in the margins – in pencil though, not ink. That said, I’m so taken with your amply stocked repair kit that I’m tempted to reform my ways. Ah, the power of stationery!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your books, your rules 🙂 I know I’m awfully prissy. I don’t lend my books out because I’d be appalled if they came back with a broken spine or a crease. I’d prefer to just give away my copy and then buy myself another.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Greasy stains I would pat down with cornstarch or baking soda for 24 hrs. Then brush it away. Might soak up the grease.

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. I do that with clothes; I would never have thought to try it with books! It certainly couldn’t hurt.


  9. I love used books (though they have to be in good condition), but the sticky residue from inventory labels has always driven me crazy. Now I finally know how to get rid off it. Hooray!!! My books and I thank you!


    1. Goo Gone works wonders 🙂


  10. My husband has a special black-colored tape that is used to fix bindings. I accidentally used it as duct tape one time–woops! I love a used book–even with notes in the margins, fun to see the thoughts of the last reader!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes, that black cloth tape is really good on hardback spines. I haven’t thought about it in years. Most of my hardbacks seem really robust; it was just the college library books that had been beaten up so much over the years that they virtually needed new spines.

      I have a few books that were clearly student copies at one time based on what is underlined and the comments on symbolism, etc. It’s kind of funny, but also kind of annoying. Especially if I’m reading poetry, I don’t want someone else telling me what lines to pay most attention to.


  11. Do you know that I hate the smell of Goo Gone? It’s sometimes used to take New Book labels off of library books going into regular shelves, and I just can’t stand it. It’s cool that you take such good care of your used books. I admit I don’t do anything to mine!


    1. Oh, too bad. My best friend is allergic to oranges, so she probably would hate the smell too!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m not quite as dedicated as you, but I do like to rehabilitate unhappy books. However, I am religious in my use of Scotch Book Tape for torn pages: that comes from the days when I too was a library assistant.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I leave the books as they are after buying them. And if they’re in really bad condition I just don’t buy those ones. It’s rare that I would come across books in such bad condition. I do hate stickiness, though, so it’s good to know about the Goo Gone!
    I love that you take such good care of your books. My favourite thing to do at the library is to straighten the messy books and get them in exactly the right order. I don’t like to see them all messed up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you volunteer for your library, or are you just a concerned patron? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I used to do it as a concerned patron, but right now I work there twice a week in a temporary position. And that’s part of my job! Can’t get much better than that!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. That’s fantastic! What a great opportunity for you.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. […] Welcome to the Fold, Little Book: How I Tend to My Secondhand Purchases (January 2018) […]


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