I prefer to buy books new from a bookstore. I budget my book money so I can afford to, and it's direct support of other authors and booksellers, plus the books are usually in the best condition. Thus we all win. However, when a book goes out of print, I have to resort to buying from rare/used book dealers. I will also buy used books at charity auctions, church rummage sales and friends of the library sales to support those institutions.
Used books sometimes come with surprises inside them left behind by the previous owner. Usually makeshift bookmarks, but often things you don't expect to find in a book. Like the $20.00 bill and shopping list I found in one of my grandmother's books on Watergate. On the list were three things that I loved as a kid: Oreos, Hires Root Beer and Jiffy Pop.
The strangest thing I've found in a book sparked the plot for one of my early unpubbed novels, Safekeeping. I bought a box of books at a Baptist church silent auction without looking too carefully through the box. When I got home, I discovered that one of them, a Bible, had been used as a stash. The original owner had glued the pages of the middle section together and I could see the center had been cut out. Because it was completely sealed, I had to use a razor blade to open the homemade cache. Inside I found three Polaroids of a woman's naked torso.
I doubt anyone wants to do a study on what people leave behind in books, but just in case you're curious, here are:
Ten Things I've Found in Used Books
(most frequent to rarest)
1. Hand-written inscriptions -- most often on the inside front cover, usually birthday or Christmas messages. Almost always on hardcover books; rarely in paperbacks. Longest: one newly-wed bride wrote a long and affectionate letter to her husband on the inside cover of a how-to home repair book. Oldest: a little girl named Sarah Jane Carman in Hempstead (England?) practiced writing her name on the inside leaf of an 1860 edition of Byron's complete works. She also dated her inscription August 14, 1860.
2. Bookmarks -- Used and new bookstore bookmarks are the ones I find most frequently, but I also find the laminated "gifty" bookmarks with braided tassels. Rarest one I've found was a hand-drawn bookmark with a pencil sketch of a tree that looks pretty professional but has to be fifty, sixty years old. My personal favorite: a Beauty and the Beast TV show bookmark with a photo of Vincent and a quote from my favorite of Shakespeare's sonnets, the 29th.
3. Margin notes -- usually in pencil, sometimes next to passages highlighted in yellow or pink. I find these most often in nonfiction books. They're annoying as hell, too.
4. Objects used as bookmarks -- things like hair ribbons, photographs, pieces of plastic or cardboard, a flattened beaded bracelet, cereal box tops, and business cards. The most unusual object I've found was an ancient curved piece of hand-tatted blue lace that was probably part of a collar for a lady's blouse or dress. Most recently found was a red satin A-B honor roll ribbon from a local elementary school.
5. Student notes on notebook paper -- inevitably in nonfiction books I pick up at library book sales. Written in pencil are okay, but the notes in blue, black or red ink sometimes transfer to the book's pages if left in there long enough. The neatest thing about student notes are the doodles they draw on their papers.
6. Newspaper and magazine clippings -- recipes, ads, comics and articles that have been clipped or torn out, as well as whole pages from magazines folded in half.
7. Index cards -- you may find some of mine in a book one day; I use index cards while I'm reading reference books to make notes and then use the card I'm writing on to mark my place.
8. Mold and water marks -- I once borrowed a novel from the library that was so moldy I literally could not read it; the odor was too much for me. Books that get soaked from a roof leak or flood swell and mildew. These are the hardest books to detox and clean so I've stopped buying any used books with this sort of damage.
9. Cigarette ash -- not so much in these days of non-smokers, but it was a real problem in the seventies and eighties. Today's reader seems to eat more than smoke while reading; lately I'm seeing more food and drink dribble stains.
10. Letters never finished or mailed -- To date I've only found three letters left in books. One is a fan letter to the author of the book in which I found it (gushy one); one was a newsy couple of pages from a daughter in Florida writing to her mom up North; and the last was a single paragraph of Hi, how are you, I am fine, the weather's nice writing.
And finally, one thing I've never found but that I leave behind in books on purpose: my poetry, always hand-written, always unsigned.