Monday, October 10, 2011

Used Books

At present, there aren't any used bookstores in my area.

And that is a real shame, because I've always loved used bookstores.

Everything about them appeals to me: the ambiance, the musty aroma of old books, and the thrill of the unexpected discovery. I even like the often-eccentric merchants who operate them.

When we first moved to our little berg, there was a used bookstore in the main business district. It was a pretty good one, but it's been gone for years. A couple others have come and gone, in the years since. I have always wondered how used bookstores stay in business.

Most used bookstores are filled with thousands of arcane volumes that don’t interest me at all, with big sections like Americana, Railroads, and Regional History. That must sound like a paradox – thousands of titles that don’t interest me – but like most book lovers I have esoteric passions. When I go into any used bookstore I become a homing pigeon. I almost always turn up something of interest; and every now and then I’ll unearth some genuine nugget, a truly exciting and prized discovery.

Some years back, when I lived in San Francisco, my neighborhood had seven or eight used bookstores. On Saturdays I used to make the rounds, beginning with a streetcar ride down Church Street to the main business district in that area. After checking out three or four different places I’d stop for coffee at Spinelli’s. Then I’d catch the electric bus and take it for eight blocks to my favorite, The Bibliophile, where the proprietor astonished me with the breadth of her knowledge of a vast inventory.

During this period I began actively searching for books about the JFK assassination. My interest had been dormant for years, but was revived by a chance remark one day in The Bibliophile. I came across a battered mass-market paperback called If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade, a memoir by a colorful figure named Warren Hinckle. I’d never heard of it before. The proprietor noticed me flipping through it and said, “There’s a really fascinating chapter in there about the Kennedy assassination.” The book only cost a dollar, so I bought it. And indeed, the chapter fascinated me – and my interest in the case was revived.

Used bookstores, I soon learned, tend to categorize Kennedy books inconsistently. In one store they might be in U.S. History, while in another, True Crime. In others still, there might be a Conspiracies section. Once I figured that out I began to find curiosities like The Witnesses ("one of the most biased offerings ever to masquerade as objective information"), and worthies like Jim Garrison's Heritage of Stone. I was hooked.

But I stray. I'm beginning to wonder whether, with the demise of places like Borders, used bookstores might make a comeback. If publishing is overwhelmed by electronic books, as seems to be quite likely, then a new demand for physical books could develop. Of course, they'll be available via the Internet, and if they're antiques they'll be more costly than now. Maybe they'll even make a partial comeback, like vinyl records. And that would be a good thing.

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