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Daylight robbery: Mr Brownlow, while browsing a bookstall, has his pocket picked by the Artful Dodger in a Cruikshank illustration for “Oliver Twist”

The pleasures of a good second-hand bookshop are legion — as are the disappointments of the modern chain bookstore. One offers freedom to browse a broad and unpredictable range of books of all periods and subjects, varying widely in condition and price. Even if social niceties are foregone when an antiquarian bookseller clearly begrudges selling anything from his cherished stock, mutual understanding and respect nevertheless surround the solemn exchange. The other, by contrast, directs its energies to promoting only newly published titles — or newly concocted hot drinks; what stock exists is unimaginatively arranged so as to make the joy of browsing impossible and the thrill of the unexpected almost unattainable. For instance, finding any worthwhile reading matter in a modern W.H. Smith — once the bastion of high-street bookselling — before boarding a train must be one of those shock events that merits appearance on the local news.

The heartfelt lament that good bookshops are an increasingly rare presence on our streets is nothing new: that the last decade has seen the closure of 500 independent stores, roughly a third of the sector, has aggrieved all book lovers. Yet a clear picture of the world of book-buying has been obscured in recent years by significant technological changes. The arrival of the e-book, heralded as the harbinger of death to its physical ancestor, has actually brought about some good: observation suggests that the reading of books has risen among commuters, and the charm of three-dimensional tomes is now appreciated in a fresh light. As with the recent revival of the vinyl record, the enhanced rarity of older books has led to something of a fetishisation of them in the hand. There is no doubt that the demand for second-hand books endures, even among the youngest generations; the problem now is quite where to find them.

The advent of the internet was quickly understood to be a revolutionary moment in the book trade. Amazon set the pace for the online retail of new titles but other “marketplace” sites, most notably Abebooks, saw the possibility of uniting a theoretically infinite number of second-hand booksellers’ stocks with a globally interested community, leaving only the logistics of shipping at home and abroad to be surmounted. This seemed to usher in a much-needed second dawn for book collecting — and for a while the going was very good: bargains that lurked by the Kelvin in Glasgow, down a lane in Godalming, or at the station in Grange-over-Sands advanced online pari passu, and at their same attractive prices. To the collector who had long traipsed the streets for years in search of his desideratissimum, this new vista was incredible: never before has it been easier to trace a second-hand book and to sift for the specific edition or volume. Unsurprisingly, given this wealth of options, the purchase of books online increased dramatically: in 2009 only one fifth of UK books were bought through the internet; by 2014 the figure had risen to more than half.

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