I’ve rarely had problems buying used, second-hand books, but I did have a “bad” experience recently. I bought a second-hand book on eBay. When I received it, it wasn’t the traces of glue on the cover that I first noticed, but the foul smell of cold tobacco on the pages. So I set out to find out how I could clean this second-hand book and make it as good as new. In this article, I explain how to remove bad smells, clean book covers, and “disinfect” them, without harmful products.

Removing a musty, damp or tobacco smell from a second-hand book

Tip tested and approved on my book with the unbearable smell of old tobacco:

  • Place the book in a box (ideally one that allows it to stand upright, to “air” the pages) in which you’ve put baking soda. You can mix a little essential oil with the bicarbonate to impregnate the pages with its scent (which is what I did), but just a drop so as not to dampen the bicarbonate. I placed a small cloth under the book to prevent it from ending up with lots of grains between the pages.
  • Leave the box closed for 3 days.
  • If the smell has persisted, you may need to put some bicarbonate between the pages: use this as a last resort, as you’ll then need to take the time to remove the grains (the biggest will go away when you shake the book by the edge, but you’ll probably need to rub the pages anyway to remove the remaining grains).

Result: no more bad smells, the pages now smell of lavender.

Traces of glue on a book cover

To remove glue, there’s nothing like oil. So I put a little vegetable oil on a cloth and rubbed where there were traces of glue. You can add a little bicarbonate of soda to make a little scrub (go easy and gradually so as not to damage the cover). Of course, use a very small dose, as the aim is not to leave greasy stains on the book’s pages!

“Disinfecting” the cover of a second-hand book

If you’re afraid of bacteria or the like, there’s nothing like good old-fashioned household white vinegar. Again, use sparingly to avoid blunders. Take a small cloth, soak it in vinegar (personally, I have a vinegar spray I use to clean my glasses and other small screens, so I use that to avoid soaking the cloth too much) and rub the blanket with it for a little clean. A drop of essential oil in the vinegar will give the book a natural, pleasant scent.

If you’re really afraid of bacteria, you can clean the pages with bicarbonate of soda (leave for a day or two), but then you’ll have a lot of fun getting it all off…

It’s worth noting, however, that most of the time, books are just a little dusty, and a wipe with a cloth can solve the problem!

Reminder: Why buy second-hand?

There are a multitude of places (physical or virtual) where you can find second-hand books: libraries, book boxes, flea markets, specialist stores, online sales… It’s a good way to reduce paper production and waste, and avoid clutter.

Buying second-hand books makes it easier to get them out of the house once you’ve read them. Bartering is also a good way to vary your library without collecting. So second-hand books are all to the good!

To limit my purchases, in order :

  • I try to rent the book I’m interested in from the library,
  • if I can’t find it there, I turn to the second-hand market,
  • finally, if I have no choice, I buy it new,

I also sometimes make an exception, when I buy a book by a young author, or produced by a small publishing house, because I’m putting some ethics into it, I’m participating in a project for someone who needs it (see explanation below).

My position as an author on second-hand books

An ethical question arises here: if you buy all your books second-hand, you stop remunerating the authors (whose royalties on sales are already minimal!) and you don’t encourage the production of new, qualitative content.

That’s why I still sometimes buy new books, to support the author or publisher.

I’m an author myself, and I’ve found myself confronted with this issue. For my book on decluttering, which is self-published, I work with platforms like Amazon that operate on the principle of print-to-order. This way, no stock is produced unnecessarily and destroyed, only the copies actually consumed are produced!

For my novel, I was lucky enough to sign a publishing contract with Editions L’Alchimiste, a publisher who has also chosen to work with print-on-demand, printing very small stocks for bookshops.

The book market is similar to that of fast-fashion: the publishing giants produce an astronomical quantity of books, the quality is declining more and more (just look at the spelling mistakes in the books published by the big groups!), costs are so low that it’s more profitable for them to print lots of copies and then destroy the unsold ones (note that the author is only paid on the books actually sold!).

This won’t be the case with my book, and for this reason I’m very happy to be working with a publisher on a human scale and concerned about its impact!

At the same time, as a minimalist, I hope that readers don’t hesitate to give my books a second life when they’ve read them and no longer need them.

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