The Use of Used Bookstores

I prefer used books. There, I said it.


Now, I love a new pair of shoes, even though they often require enduring a short, uncomfortable breaking-in period. And although I have triumphed upon finding a distinctive shirt or sportcoat at a gaudy vintage clothing store, I haven’t had the urge to shop that way in more than 10 years. These days, I drive a second-hand car, but only out of necessity — I salivate every time a new model of my junker passes me on the road. And yes, I live in a hand-me-down home. But, because I chose where I live over what I live in, I had to go with what was available.

No, nowadays, for just about every category in which I make a purchase, I would rather have a new version of the item. But when it comes to books, nothing beats an old, worn, dusty, musty copy. Something just feels better, feels right, about opening a volume that someone else has opened and read and, if I’m lucky, has written in. The marginalia can be as interesting, or even more so, than the words printed in the book itself. It’s like pre-approval of my choice or, on some level, an unspoken communication with a like-minded soul. Even the scent of an old book can provide pleasure, evoking the smell of a quiet spot in a favorite library or a comfortable old chair at my grandparents’ house.

The only thing better than a used book, of course, is a used bookstore. Wherever I may be, and whenever it is convenient, I always scout out the nearest emporium and set aside some time to browse. For instance, for several years in a row, I traveled to Manhattan on business. And I always made a point of going to the Gotham Book Mart & Gallery. The cramped shop, situated a few steps below street level, with its towering stacks of books narrowing the aisles, overloaded shelves (sometimes packed two-deep), a friendly but nearly nonverbal staff, and damp, dank, dolorous odor, was nonetheless a destination hotspot for me. If for no other purpose, the Gotham served as a necessary diversion from an often nerve-wracking, ego-smashing workload. At such times, some people go window-shopping at Tiffany’s or stroll through the galleries at MOMA. But not me. As soon as I could, I would head straight as a bee to 41 West 47th Street, where the little white sign with black lettering hanging over the door read invitingly, “Wise Men Fish Here.” (How could I not?)

And the trawling I would undertake, with usually no more than an hour to spare, always produced a bounty. Some of my most prized possessions came from there — the oversized Jargon Society publication of Joel Oppenheimer’s poems, a faded first edition of Hayden Carruth’s only novel, several books of poetry by Paul Goodman, including a tattered copy of The Lordly Hudson, an edition of Edward Lear’s The Jumblies with illustrations (and autograph) by Gotham luminary Edward Gorey, etc. — worthless trinkets, really, fool’s gold to the seasoned rare-books collector. But gems to me nonetheless. Their market value didn’t matter; frankly, I’m too cheap to spend a lot of money on such ephemera. This was just a grand way to get great books for a few dollars. Besides, the value to me far exceeded the price the bookseller had penciled onto the inside first page. That was the point. These were books, usually long out of print, written by authors I was discovering or had admired, that I just wanted to own and have on my shelf to read and re-read.

Although I always seek out a store when traveling to a new city, sometimes the stores themselves become the excuse for a trip. I once volunteered to work company-sponsored events in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco — both outings little more than overnights from the East Coast — simply to have the chance to do some shopping at Powell’s Books and City Lights Books, respectively. With the former, I managed to steal away midday for a fruitful spree, but I couldn’t get to the latter until shortly before closing, at midnight. I quickly found and purchased a selection of James Laughlin’s poems (a good find, mind you), then made my way to the bar across the street and sat in the window, hoping to see the owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, locking up. No such luck. Perhaps my favorite happenstance discovery was coming across Faulkner House Books, off Jackson Square, in New Orleans, an upscale boutique situated in the eponymous writer’s one-time residence. It inspired me to splurge on an autographed copy of A Craving for Swan, a collection of Crescent City legend Andre Codrescu’s essays.

Sometimes these places serve a higher calling for me. I can remember every moment of my visit to the famed Shakespeare & Company, in Paris. It was no doubt shabbier and more tarnished in 1992, when I was there, than it had been four decades earlier during its heyday as the centerpiece of literary Modernism. Yet I was giddy, shaking like a bobbysoxer, but too shy to get owner and bibliophile George Whitman (purportedly one of Walt’s relatives) to sign my copy of his store’s slim biography. It was a religious experience, much like the feeling I imagine people get when visiting Notre Dame or Chartres Cathedral. But for me, that was a highlight of the trip, spending an hour or so with ghosts at Shakespeare. The Gotham also proved to be hallowed ground for me, when I found myself in NYC shortly after 9/11. It was like visiting with an old friend, finding some comfort and assurance during a very confusing time. I didn’t need to go any farther down the island. Now, unfortunately, like the Twin Towers, the Gotham is gone. The owner was evicted in 2007, its inventory was sold off, and its motto relegated to bookmarks and memories.

Unfortunately, that is the fate of many used (or antiquarian, as they are sometimes called) bookstores. There are still a few places I can go locally, like The Kelmscott Bookshop, fertile ground for Menckeniana, or the eclectic Tiber Books. Most, though, are dying off or morphing into something else in order to survive. Powell’s, for instance, has grown to occupy more than a city block and sells new books alongside used ones, as well as calendars, coffee mugs, and other suchlike sundries and tchotchkes.

Critics used to blame the chains and superstores, like Borders and Barnes & Noble, for forcing the corner bookshop out of business. (Most people, it turns out, prefer new books.) Now the fingers are pointing at Interweb-based commerce sites, like eBay or Alibris, which sell new, used, and rare books online, for bringing down the grubby bricks-and-mortar businesses. I suppose it’s more convenient to pick out titles in the quiet of your own home, rather than venture downtown, especially given the vast selection virtually at your fingertips. I succumbed once and ordered a nearly new copy of Paul Goodman’s Collected Poems online, something I had been unable to find anywhere. And although I received a cheerful, handwritten note from the shop owner, thanking me for buying from him, it just wasn’t the same experience and made think twice about shopping that way.

But I recently had a surprising encounter that gave me hope about the future of used books and the stores that sell them. Following a business lunch, I ducked into Salamander Books to kill the remaining 15 minutes on the parking meter. After buying a scruffy copy of O Taste and See, by Denise Levertov (for $3), which I have been searching for for years, and a translation of Poems From the Greek Anthology, by Kenneth Rexroth (for $2.50) that I didn’t even know existed, I asked the man behind the register if he felt threatened by the online outlets. “Not at all,” he replied. “They are a lifeline to us. We can’t live without them.” Especially now that Amazon has swallowed used-book marketplace AbeBooks, he added.

Then came the surprise: I asked him if he knew whether they had another lost treasure I was seeking, and he said, “I have no idea. Check online — they will know whether we have it.”

So I did (though they didn’t), and found what I was looking for. It should be arriving any day now.


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