I’ve just been away to visit family in Warwickshire, and while I was there we went to a favourite local haunt of theirs; Astley Book Farm, which bills itself as ‘the largest secondhand book shop in the Midlands’. Well, I’ll agree with that. I’ve posted before about my obsession with trawling secondhand bookshops for hidden treasures, but I’ve never had so many shelves to scour as at the Book Farm.

There are shelves for all the usual genres and topics, an area for rare and first edition books, new arrivals, and sale items – indeed a whole separate barn with everything at 50p! There’s also a small sofa area where you can get a coffee and a piece of cake – apparently this used to be a self-serve coffee machine and a tin of biscuits with an honesty box, but the demand has meant they’ve now introduced a serviced café. All around the place there are little touches that show the character of the place – the front of the coffee bar is decorated with the paperback covers of children’s books, for example – while in the toilet it’s a wall of crime and thrillers. As the rooms are in a network of converted barns, the beams are still in place and you might chance to look up and see a stack of dusty hardbacks propped in the angle of a join.

 

As always, the languages section is almost at the furthest corner of the place! I have amassed quite a collection of reference books from my secondhand missions, but there is a knack to it. After all, you need to know your reference material is still relevant, so I usually steer clear of any fast-moving topics, such as technology. Normally, I wouldn’t stray much past the last couple of decades for dictionaries but this time I did pick up a bilingual FR<>EN dictionary of commercial & financial terms published in 1955. There’s over 50,000 words and phrases and on scanning through, many of them are still in common usage so I decided it was worth the £4 price tag. My second find was much more recent and well into the ‘safe zone’; the new Penguin dictionary of Abbreviations (2000), for just £2.75.

My third find highlighted another issue with secondhand language books which I hadn’t come across before. I’m learning Mandarin at the moment, so I was keen to pick up any books on this topic. There were two course books on learning to read and write Chinese – as the course I’m on primarily involves learning through speaking and listening, these were of particular interest. One of the two books was from the 50s and appeared to deal primarily with the traditional character forms, only giving reference to the development of the simplified system. As this latter is now standard, that’s what I wanted to learn so the second book, an extended 1982 reprint to include the simplified characters and the pinyin romanisation, was the one I went for. The book is actually the first in a series of exercise books so I may yet be on the hunt for the sequels!

So, to sum up – for a successful haul of secondhand reference books the key factors are:

  • What’s the publication date?
  • Is the content still accurate or relevant?
  • Are there any cultural or historic changes in the topic that you should be careful of?

Secondhand reference books are usually vastly cheaper than new, particularly for specialised subjects, and when chosen carefully can be just as valuable – I added three fiction books to my three reference books and paid just shy of £20 for the whole haul – so it’s well worth an hour spent trawling the shelves and considering the options. Happy hunting!

 

“The Book Farm” & how to buy secondhand language books
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