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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.

Why used books make the best travel souvenirs

Come for the book, leave with a little piece of your destination’s history

(Min Heo/for The Washington Post)

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When I go on a trip, the only books I pack are the ones I can access through the library app on my phone. But I always come home with at least one more volume to add to my packed shelves.

Fight me on this: The absolute best place to hang out on vacation is in an independent bookstore. Staff recommendations let you peek into the mind of a city’s literary trendsetters. Local displays highlight authors and stories you won’t stumble across anywhere else. And, best of all, you are surrounded by kindred book-loving spirits who call the place you’re visiting home.

Stores that sell new books are pretty, clean and sell great swag. I love them. I take pictures of them. I spend eagerly on their tomes and tote bags. (Tally from a recent trip to New York City: three tote bags, three magnets, two children’s books, two books for me, the sheet music for the animated film “Encanto” and a pack of book-themed toddler socks.)

But for me, the true treasures are buried in the funky, sometimes-musty secondhand shops, where a great find is like kismet. These books have lived entire lives, probably right there in town, before having a chance encounter with your visiting self. And you get to bring home that unseen history along with whatever is written on the pages.

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I still remember pulling a paperback copy of “The Whale Rider,” about a courageous Maori girl, from a shelf in a used bookstore in New Zealand on my honeymoon in 2015. Did it belong to a young reader on the South Island before finding its way into my suitcase and flying across an ocean? Whoever owned it might like to know that the copy now sits on a shelf full of stories about brave girls in my toddler’s room in D.C., waiting for the day she can absorb the story.

My used-book spoils never fail to bring me back to the excitement of travel. In London, I spent a delightful day during a work trip in 2017 wandering into tiny, old bookshops — marveling at how many there were — and picked up an Agatha Christie volume and a tattered, yellow-paged copy of “A Christmas Carol.”

A trip to Maine, home state of Stephen King, would not have been complete without the purchase of one of his novels in Portland. The bookseller wrote the price, $9.50, inside the copy of “Mr. Mercedes,” along with a note of approval: “Nice copy!”

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The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles was an absolute wonderland for a book-seeker like me, with a local section that kept me pondering options far too long before narrowing my purchase to three: “The Lady in the Lake” by Raymond Chandler, “The Handyman” by Carolyn See and “The Other Side of Mulholland” by Stephen Randall. I like to imagine they had long and eventful lives in perfect California weather before ending up with me in the Mid-Atlantic. (Sorry, books.)

My favorite used-book tale comes from Tattered Corners, a new and used bookstore in my husband’s hometown of Meadville, Pa. While we were staying with his parents for several weeks last year, I sneaked away for an hour of browsing and discovered a lovely pre-owned copy of an Ann Patchett novel that I’d been wanting to read.

I opened the front page and saw an extremely familiar name. Here, finally, was a book whose past life didn’t have to remain a mystery: It had belonged to my mother-in-law.

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