The allure of used bookstores

Jul 17, 2013
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My first ever job out of college was at a Barnes and Noble Bookstore. My manager was a British lady who took her job too seriously and aside from working with a hotter-than-frenchfry-grease UCLA med student—it was the La Cienega Blvd. store in Los Angeles—the job was the worst thing to happen to me until my college loans kicked in.

The problem was, like most chains and corporate giants, the rules were often silly and the people on staff hated themselves for having ended up in a dead end job. The work was mindless and the customers did little to give me faith in humanity. Once I had a lady bitch me out for 20 minutes because the Dan Brown book she had picked up on order had a crease on the first page. I remember I transferred her but actually just hung up the phone. I’m not sure if she ever called back. After Joan Collins dropped in and spent 30 minutes berating one of the managers for not having her books properly displayed, I took my morning break and never went back. In retrospect, it was a solid decision.

What I should have done was take a job at a used bookstore. These places have character, attract true book nerds, 1 and smell like my grandmother’s basement, a waft of yellowing paper, stale cardboard, and mildewed carpet. It’s the journey deep into a used bookstore that I enjoy most: beset on all sides by books which had been foolishly discarded by someone who could not appreciate them the way I could and deeper inside, where the cashier can’t see me, I run my fingers over the bindings like a child brushing his fingertips over a whitewashed fence. . .

Of course I’m being romantic, but there is a special feeling when searching through the names and titles to discover something I had no idea I was looking for in the first place. And I wanted to share with you a few of my favorite finds in used bookstores. My hope is that I’m not alone in my pursuit of finding books that are not only special to the buyer—or even rare titles worth money—but provide a story separate from the one on the pages.

“The District Doctor and Other Stories” by Ivan Turgenev

Let’s start with the book that prompted this exercise. I have had Turgenev listed on my to-read authors for awhile. 2 The book I wanted was “Superfluous Man,” but I decided it wouldn’t hurt to read some of his shorter works. For $7.50 I figure it was worth it. I purchased the book at Bookworks in Wrigleyville, having popped over in the morning to meet out-of-town friends for a drink before they attended a Cubs game. I took a seat at the bar and popped open my new book. In the front cover I found a 1959 Lake View High School Summer School syllabus. 3 The name of the student wasn’t on the document, but the date was in the upper righthand corner. I found it fascinating to be holding a book that some kid had owned in the late ’50s. To my surprise I found a “teacher’s receipt” in the back of the book and it was received by “P. Gordon.” I can only tip my hat to wherever P. Gordon is and say thanks for the book and the story.

“USA Trilogy” by John Dos Passos

This is one of my favorites. Not only are there three books under one cover, but there is a beautiful little nugget on the first page. It reads: “To Alena – for a long winter evening. Everett” I have picked this book up at least 100 times and read that. Who was Everett? Obviously he was a well-read fellow and he wanted to share an American classic with Alena. But who was Alena? Did she actually read it? If so, why did it end up in a used bookstore? I have this awful feeling that Everett walked with a slight limp and he wasn’t very handsome. Alena was his shining star, a beautiful girl with great ambition, and he was trying to woe her with an intellectual gift. But she left for college that summer and he never heard from her again. Sound sappy and melodramatic? I bet Dos Passos would be proud.

“The Curse of Lono” by Hunter S. Thompson

I was in Seattle with an ex-girlfriend. She was there for work and I was there to drink. She gave me the keys to the rental car and I spent the day driving around the city, taking in the sights, drinking, and, as it turns out, buying books. I remember seeing this book in the window of a used bookstore and immediately popping in to buy it. At the time I was going through the “read everything by HST and do drugs because I want to be as cool as him” stage of my life. I paid not more than five bucks. A few years later I saw that the book, dependent on condition, was worth about 100 bucks. I should sell it and buy Wild Turkey. I think that’s what Hunter would do.

“Mason & Dixon” by Thomas Pynchon

I have yet to read it. Don’t worry, the dust cover is off and it’s sitting right next to my reading chair. But 800-page Pynchon books require a running start and lots of gumption—and I’m lazy and scared these days. I’ll get around to it, but I’m not sure I should use this particular copy. Like “Lono” this book was purchased for only five bucks. It turns out, however, that it’s a first edition which is worth about $35. That doesn’t sound like much, but where else can you make seven times your money so easily? *Walter White raises his hand*

Notes:

  1. That’s right. You’re not a real reader if you shop at B&N. Come at me.
  2. I keep a short list on my phone and consult it when I pop into a bookstore.
  3. Who the holy jumping hell reads Turgenev in summer school? Can kids even read these days?

Kenneth Griggs is a writer and bartender living in Chicago, IL. He has hitchhiked through the Australian Outback; lived in a small fishing village in Japan; climbed Mount Kilimanjaro; and ran with the bulls in Pamplona. He spent six years as a feature writer for a daily and weekly newspaper and has two unpublished novels to his name. But his finest accomplishment is not yet sprouting a gin blossom nose.

  • Pete

    I had a similar experience with a note in a book a while back. In college, whilst rummaging through the stacks at the school library I found an old poetry anthology. No cover, tattered, mildewy. I opened up to a somewhat unknown poem by Yeats (a favorite of mine) and a note fell out. It was a love poem and so, similarly, a love note that popped out. The note requested that I send the poem to a certain address and addressed to a certain girl. I did so, but never heard back. Still I imagine who they both were and still I remember the poem by heart. Sometimes those human connections are as magic as the pages themselves. Great stuff.