“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.