Novel Thoughts blog

An Elegy for the Used Book Store

March 18, 2016 12:44 pm | 5 Comments


“The used book store, unlike the catalogue or even the library, puts us in a place where we can come across and buy some unsuspected title that turns out to get at the essence of what is.”
—James V. Schall, S.J., Another Sort of Learning

“We are all coming to worship efficiency, instead of magnificence.”
— Ronald Knox, Some Loose Stones

They aren’t dead yet. Used book stores still dot the landscape. The larger, more organized ones have managed to hold on better than the small, dusty shops featuring labyrinthine stacks of tattered volumes. But the days when a stroll through a local San Francisco neighborhood was sure to turn up at least one or two small used book stores are gone. And it’s a shame.

All the sentiment and sorrow in the world can’t revive a dead business any more than it can revive a dead person. Yet as we continue to lose used book stores (at least four, by my count, have closed in the past few months in the San Francisco Bay Area), it’s worth reflecting on what makes these places special. And why we should cherish the ones that haven’t (yet) closed down.

I’ve always preferred the disorganized used book stores to the carefully curated shops. Give me the piles of books on the floor, teetering stacks of disarray just waiting to be sifted. The disorganized stores always seem to have the bonus of being run by someone just barely on the sane side of eccentricity, the sort of clerk who may chuck a potential customer out for asking the wrong kind of question, or who may buttonhole you to tell about that time they saw a real, honest-to-goodness UFO in Alaska.

It’s these types of stores that have led to true discovery. In one I saw a first edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book that inspired my design for the book cover of The Soul’s Upward Yearning. In other I picked up a copy of the book Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, a title which has become a favorite (and hilarious) read. In another a vintage German volume of Art Nouveau prints was found and is now a valuable reference for design inspiration. The disorganization leads to discovery. Curation, while valuable, only offers a guide to what the curator deems worthy.

Then there is the smell. That scent of old paper, faded nicotine, mildew, leather, and fabric that blends together into its own calming aroma. Just a whiff of it is like a mild sedative, setting the mood for a lazy hour of scanning spines and shifting stacks. Sure, if I really just wanted a cheap used copy of that Philip K. Dick novel, I could just order it online for four dollars. That would be efficient. But I’m not going to walk out from an online bookstore, like I did the other day with the local used book store, with that Philip K. Dick book plus the novel that inspired Kolchak: The Night Stalker and a strange French science-fiction story about St. Joan of Arc on another planet, am I? And certainly not with the anecdotes the store owner told me about his encounters with Dick’s father.

A since-vanished bookstore in my home town is where as a teenager I bought my first copy of a book by G.K. Chesterton (The Complete Father Brown). Another long since closed bookstore is where I picked up an armload of Wodehouse paperbacks at 50 cents a pop. Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, John Kennedy O’Toole, Gene Wolfe, Jacques Maritain, and Joyce Cary are all authors I first encountered through books purchased on a whim in a used book store. Volumes of sketches, paintings, and design that have inspired me in my work, from Andrew Wyeth to William Morris to Robert Beverly Hale have also come from browsing the shelves.

But that world is coming to an end. There’s now just one of those old-fashioned, rumpled used book stores in the neighborhood where I work. There used to be three. An independent new-and-used store has also moved in, and it’s nice… but it lacks the rough edges. In the East Bay where I live, the closest good used book store folded two years ago and barely exists now as an online entity selling through Amazon. It seems inevitable that, barring some kind of miraculous rediscovery of reading and buying locally, efficiency be damned, the used book store is on the way out.

Farewell. You will be missed.

Image: a small fraction of the used books in my home library.

John Herreid

John Herreid

John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and four children.

Tags: bookstores reading used books


  1. March 23, 2016 at 5:08 pm

    Yesterday morning I was at my favorite used book store here in Eugene, Oregon (which still has several, but has lost some in recent years), Windows Booksellers. While it’s dangerous for the wallet, it sure is fun. And they had just gotten in a collection of three shelves of (mostly) first edition books by and about Chesterton, CS Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, and related authors. I ended up buying a first edition of Maise Ward’s Return to Chesterton (with this great cover). There’s nothing like being in such bookstores. Thankfully, the good folks at Windows seem to have it figured out; they are able to thrive because of the internet, but they make the in-store experience enjoyable as well.

  2. John Herreid

    March 24, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    That is a great cover! I found a first edition of the Sheed and Ward edition of GKC’s Autobiography several years ago that felt like quite a coup.

    The internet has facilitated a lot of good for small businesses, but also quite a bit of bad. One thing I notice more and more is that the surviving used book stores rely on stocking only the titles that have scanned for good value online, with the end result of having a rather limited selection. Which is too bad. But on the other hand, if it means they can stay in business, good for them.

  3. March 24, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    Roswell, New Mexico, now has only the Salvation Army, Good Will,
    and a couple of other thrift stores. Even so, I occasionally find a prize at
    one of them.

  4. April 30, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    Long live Loome!

    3 ½ years ago Loome moved from an iconic church building in a popular Minnesota tourist town, Stillwater, to an economical spread on a family farm just outside of Stillwater. Each year I feel greater the loss of the church building location but, at the same time, am ever more thankful for the move to the farm for a variety of reasons. Most of our customers say they enjoy browsing at Loome much more now that the lighting is better and there is heat in the winter! A small number, and I’m one of them, miss the ambience and vertical adventure of the old church location.

    Most of Loome’s business is done with the assistance of the USPS, but believing bibliophiles continue to find their way to Loome and browse the shelves all the time. I recently created a catch-all, bargain book, section of the bookstore for the type of “surprising” browsing you like, John. It’s wild and voluminous. The rest of the store is rather meticulously organized so that we can find that specific title when customers ask for it or for when it sells via the internet. However, still, every week I open boxes of books or turn to shelves of unprocessed titles and find gems at Loome. It’s a real privilege to work here, becoming friends with these books, and introducing them to new and old discerning readers.

    Long live Loome!

  5. John Herreid

    May 2, 2016 at 11:54 am

    New life goal: visit Loome sometime. Maybe when I finally get around to making a cross-country road trip.

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