Caledonia Books on Great Western Road is the place to start your exploration of the West End’s second-hand bookshops. It has a charming atmosphere and that characteristic “bookshop” smell. The iron spiral staircase draws your eye as you come in the door, and they stock beautiful antiquarian folios that you would be unlikely to come across in large chain-stores. The staff mainly leave you alone, but if you’re looking for a place where you can chat with the proprietors, go to Thistle Books on Otago Street.
They are very friendly and helpful, and have a vast knowledge of literature. I know when I’m buying a book I love it if the person selling it to me says things like: “Have you tried Dostoyevsky?” Thistle is well-organised, specialising in the Arts. They can always tell you if they have what you’re looking for and where it is, although you can still stumble upon things you didn’t know you were looking for.
If this is something that appeals to you and you enjoy the experience of being surrounded and rifling through books, you should see Voltaire and Rousseau. Just up the road from Thistle on Otago Lane, it is the oldest second-hand bookshop in the city, and I don’t think it has been tidied since the day it opened. You literally have to step over books piled up on the floor and there is no obvious system of organisation.
The best way to enjoy the shop is to embrace this. Don’t go with a certain idea in mind: just wander and look. You might find something you didn’t even know existed. For me, this is part of the appeal of going to a place like this rather than searching online; it’s the experience more than simply the purchasing. It has nothing to do with utility: rather it is a romantic notion of gazing around you with reverence; of spending a day, sunny or otherwise, wandering around the West End in the hopes of finding hidden treasure.