Used-book stores

In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay since 2015 for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz. The readership for each site seems to have little overlap, and so, I thought if I might repost some of the Spirit essays on my own blog, it might achieve a wider readership. This one, originally from Dec. 7, 2021, is now updated and slightly rewritten. 

There are pleasures to be had in this world. And for a small group of particular people, one of the great pleasures is the used book store. Days can be spent wandering the aisles, like negotiating an English hedge maze. 

I confess that I am one of those people. An afternoon in a used bookstore is heaven. When traveling, my late wife and I would always stop for any used bookstore we came across, and even in the Midwest, where towns may be 20 miles apart, there was usually at least a little shop off Main Street filled with paperbacks. Others might seek out theme parks or historical monuments; we sought out-of-the-way and forgotten emporia of discarded books. 

But the days of the best used bookstores is gone, I’m afraid. 

It is used-book stores I mean, not used bookstores. Although, thanks to Amazon, bookstores are not as used as they used to be.

There are still lots of used-book stores, but their character has changed. Many are just storefronts in minimalls, stuffed with paperback mysteries and romance novels. Or, more recently, a spate of former grocery stores or automobile dealershops taken over by stores selling used books, records, CDs, DVDs and T-shirts with store logos on them. 

Bookmans in Phoenix and Mesa, Ariz., is one of them. I loved going there when I lived in Arizona. But it is in a shopping mall with acres of parking and the store itself is a refurbished supermarket. It is well organized and they make it easy to find what you want. But it is less fun to be lost in. 

I am old enough that I remember Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue, known in the 1950s and ’60s as Book Row, where there were, at one time, 48 used bookstores, many specializing in one type of book: cookbooks, or science books. In its heyday, Book Row spanned the stretch of Fourth Avenue between Union Square and Astor Place. They are all gone now, lost to exploding rents and the retirements and/or deaths of the stores’ original owners. The only vestige of Book Row is the Strand Bookstore, which isn’t even on Fourth Avenue anymore. In 1957, it moved to Broadway and East 12th Street. 

In many of those old dinosaurs, the books piled high on swayback shelves, with rolling ladders to get to the high-up books. There was must in the air, and any book you picked up tended to have a patina of dust along the top, which you blew off, like foam from a glass of beer. 

In such bookstores, you didn’t usually enter looking for a specific book, but rather, you were treasure hunting, seeking some wonderful volume you didn’t even know existed. Old books, from the 19th century, or the 1920s, with silver or gold titles on dark blue cloth binding. Their texts were letterpress, and each wonderful letter was embossed into the paper, leaving a texture on the surface. 

In one such bookstore in Virginia Beach, Va., — now long gone — the proprietor had a word for the die-hard book lover. She called us  “bibliopaths,” and she recognized us as soon as we entered the shop. A bibliopath is more than a book lover, but rather someone with an addiction that cannot be satisfied without a constant fix of more and more pages. 

In such stores, the books are not always well organized. They stuff the shelves, and rest in stacks on the floors. 

When I was in college in the 1960s in North Carolina, the Book Exchange in Durham was one of these troves. It finally closed in 2009 after 75 years in business, but back then, it had multiple stories of books, piled high and deep. I miss it like I miss my grandparents, long gone. 

One old customer remembered, “The Book Ex was enormous. It seemed to go on forever, up, down and sideways. It was a warren, a maze of narrow aisles between towering bookshelves and precarious piles. There were ladders propped everywhere, for reaching the shelves extending high overhead. As you wandered around, attempting to decode the organizational system and snuffling up the scents of old paper, new ink and dusty floorboards, you felt like an explorer about to make a life-changing discovery, and you felt right at home.”

It was never a “clean well-lighted place.” 

Another recalled, “When I walked in to this place, I noticed a sign up from the fire marshal, granting them some sort of exemption for having … gosh, I wish I could remember the exact phrase … something like ‘high stacks of flammable material.’ Anyway, that mental image might give you some idea of the inside of The Book Exchange — shelves and shelves of books going up the walls, everywhere you turn.”

Most current used bookstores of any size have cleaned up, added bright signage and clever display racks. Stores like McKay’s Books in Greensboro. It has a coffee bar attached and modern hanging lighting, making the interior bright and cheery. There is still a great deal of treasure to be found, but the store has a more corporate feel to it. 

Some of the old stores, like Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore., have kept up with the times. The first time I went there, it felt a bit like the Book Exchange. The store covers an entire city block and had multiple floors of books. The staff was astonishing. You could ask for some obscure title and — this was before computer cataloguing — the clerk would take you three aisles over, up to a shelf seven-feet in the air and pull out the book, as if he had just left it there earlier this morning. 

Powell’s is still the largest used bookstore in the world, but it has modernized and made itself user-friendly. Good lighting, modern display racks — and a coffee bar. 

In Ellsworth, Maine, (actually a few miles out of town), there is the Big Chicken Barn, which still has the old feel, with creaking wooden floors and sagging shelves. It is an antique shop on the bottom floor, but upstairs is all books and magazines (you can find pretty much any Life magazine or Saturday Evening Post you might want, all racked up). The old wood shingled building is as long as a football field. Perfect for getting lost in the books and finding something you didn’t know you belonged to have. 

The owners and proprietors of many a shop is as eccentric as their catalog system. Often, they have spent their whole lives with books, and are more comfortable with them than with the people who come looking for them. 

We went once to a now-defunct used bookstore in Tucson, Ariz., called The Mad Hatter. We found out why. There was a sign that said, “No Talking,” and the man behind the cash register sat reading, bearded and scruffy. We asked about a particular book we wanted and he flew into a rage. “No talking!” he yelled. When we tried to apologize, he told us we were scum, and said, “Get out, now! Leave or I’m calling the police.” I don’t think he really wanted to let go of any of his stock, but sat on it like a dragon on its hoard. 

There is a place just south of Asheville, where I now live, called Morrison’s Paperback Palace Guns & Ammo. One side of the store is a welcoming warren of shelves, by and large unsorted, covered with books so diverse they must have been bought by the dumptruck. The other side of the store was racks of rifles, shotguns and pistols, with display cases of cartridges and hunting gear. Most of his customers barely looked at the books; they were there for the ordnance. The man behind the counter tolerated our presence on the bookish side of the shop. 

In contrast the quiet and aged owner of Alcuin Books in Scottsdale would rather have a long discussion about early Christianity, or the Latin language than take your money. Richard Murian often helped me find something I needed, even if it took a week, and he’d phone me telling me he had gotten it. He is a gem of a human being. 

Or Sylvia Whitman, who currently runs Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. Famous for its original owner, Sylvia Beach, who kept the bookstore as a haven for expats in the 1920s, the store maintains its bohemian culture and will let writers down on their luck sleep there. And often, when someone could not afford a book, it was given or “lent” to them. 

It is on the Left Bank, near the rows of outdoor booksellers and their kiosks, where old books can be pored over and treasures found. 

So too was the owner of a fly-by-night used bookstore that operated out of an attic in Greensboro in the late ’60s. I can no longer remember the name of the store, or of the generous owner of it, who also loved to talk with his customers, offering them coffee from a hotplate pot. He saw, one time, that I was especially interested in a photography book by Edward Weston. He wouldn’t sell it to me; he gave it to me, saying he knew I was the right owner for it. 

I still have California and The West by Weston and Charis Wilson. I treasure it, as my benefactor knew I would. We bibliopaths recognize each other. 

That book is now worth something on the collectors’ market, which is a plague on those of us who love the books. We buy them to read, and a cheap price is essential. But books that used to be shelf fodder are now priced beyond our means. The old Modern Library volumes used to stuff the shelves and were priced at a buck fifty or two bucks and gave us a chance to load up on classics. Now, an old Modern Library book can go for $20 or more to someone who isn’t interested in what’s inside, but whether it has its original dust jacket. 

Luckily, whatever old, musty used-book stores still remain can harbor the old books — naked without jacket — and the price pencilled onto the flyleaf when it arrived at the store, maybe 20 years ago. 

It is the treasure we bibliopaths hunt. 

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