I love used book stores.
It’s not just because I enjoy reading. Used book stores, or the best of them at least, tend to be loaded with character in a way that’s quite impossible for chain stores, and which isn’t even approached by standalone stores that exclusively sell new materials.
I feel that declaring the greatness of these shops is becoming increasingly urgent. It seems that they close as quickly as I can discover them, and upon hearing that yet another of my favourites had recently shuttered, I decided to write down my thoughts on used-book stores in general; either in advertisement or in memoriam.
Glen Echo Books
I first became aware of the tendency of the used-book store to be uniquely fascinating upon visiting Glen Echo Books, a small and subterranean shop on Nassau Street in Princeton, NJ.
The first time I visited this store, I descended the stairs from the sidewalk and opened the door to be greeted by what can only be described as a gust of music. Orchestra and choir in a soaring melody, playing far too loud for any conventional shop. “What is this music?” I asked, pausing in the doorway.
“It’s Bruckner!” answered the proprietor. He was about forty years old and wore several silver rings; I assumed that the trilby on the hat rack by the door belonged to him as well. “But you can’t buy it, because I’ve only got the one copy. I’ll write down the name for you, though.” I gratefully accepted and began to browse the shelves. (It was Bruckner’s Mass in F Minor.)
There wasn’t a vast selection, only a deeply interesting and well-curated one. Some used book stores stack their volumes two or even three rows deep on the shelves; not here. Here the shelves were all neatly labeled, not with single words but with quotes: “If POETRY comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” Some of the bookcases had displays of particular new or interesting books on top, placed to attract the eye. The walls of the store were painted powder blue and intermittently papered with yellowed pages from an old French edition of Pascal’s Pensées. The cash register was a massive wooden antique which gave a noble chime at each use. There was a long blue sofa against the front wall and next to it, a coffee-maker stood on a small glass-topped table. I sat down on the sofa with a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle which I had determined to buy.
“Would you like a coffee?” asked the proprietor. “I’m about to put some on. I always have one about this time.” It was about four in the afternoon.
“Oh, yes, that’d be lovely,” I said. I remember expecting a paper cup, even after having observed the obvious angle towards the archaic and authentic present throughout the store. I settled back into the book. About twenty minutes later, a footed glass mug appeared on the side table, topped with a spoon on which was resting a brown lump of demerara. “That one’s for you,” said the shop owner.
I stayed in the shop until the early evening. Then I bought four books, three more than I’d intended; and went to find some dinner.
I became a regular at the shop and although I’ve now moved away, I still think of it fondly. I discovered many books there that I never would have read in a world in which shopping had become a sterile and completely customer-directed activity, conducted from within one’s home and with everything in print as the selection. That is merely convenience. What is convenience against a place where one can sit in comfort, sipping coffee and discussing Anton Bruckner, Georg Lukàcs, Friedrich Nietzsche's mediocre musical output, and what Walter Benjamin might have thought about the Internet? Those who enjoy such things have a duty to ourselves and each other to patronise those places where our tastes survive.
Capitol Hill Books
In Washington DC, I found this very different used-book shop, near the Eastern Market Metro stop. This one has the classic haphazard layout one expects in a used-book store; in fact it seems to fit one’s archetypal image of a used-book store almost uncannily well.
On all three floors, narrow passages weave in and out of bookcases packed with multiple layers of books, densely packed upon warping shelves and upon each other. Some of the store’s electrical wiring is visible. In the basement, if you’re quite tall, you’ll rub your head against the ceiling. The door is quite difficult to open and close. Books lie in boxes on the ground and in stacks on top of bookcases and in crates near the till. To top it all off, the proprietor of this shop is so stereotypically cantankerous and eccentric that upon my first visit there, I felt as though I’d stepped into a film. This store is a real classic, in several senses of the term.
But it’s the selection, not just the atmosphere, that makes it worth a visit. Capitol Hill Books is one of the few used-book stores which you can enter with a specific title in mind and have a pretty good chance of finding what you want. The selection is just that vast. But next to the book you’re seeking, you’ll find half-a-dozen other texts of similar interest, several of which you may never have heard; and you might take a look at them. “Are these books all so good?” you’ll think. “What defines a literary classic, what dictates renown, that I haven’t heard of these books before?” It will be a feeling that mixes the exhilaration of discovery with a slight fear that there are vast piles of greatness that will forever elude your view; a powerful cocktail that will keep you coming back for more. Out of all the booksellers in the District, this is the one I would protect from the amazonian onslaught; much as one would seek to safeguard any other Platonic ideal that had somehow crystallised into reality.
Rainbow Books and Records
I have discovered that this last shop I wanted to discuss here has closed its doors since I visited it last. I spent a respectable amount of time there during my spring holidays in Honolulu, HI about two years ago. The first time I walked in, I saw that they had quite a large selection; so I decided to inquire about a volume I hadn't had luck finding in any other shops at the time. “Have you got the second volume of Goethe’s Faust?” I asked.
The shop owner (it’s always better to visit these stores when the owner is manning the desk) glanced up and to her left, then replied, “No, but we have Faust 1 and Werther. Want to take a look?” I nodded, and was surprised when she led me to the bottom shelf of the “Fiction” section, pulled out half a dozen unrelated titles, and revealed several books by Goethe packed in a second row of volumes against the wall, where they’d been hidden by the first row. There was no look-up system, no order or obvious sorting method beyond very broad categorization; yet there was also no rummaging around. She knew where everything was, and she went straight to what we were looking for. “Perhaps she’s a Goethe lover,” I thought to myself. “Perhaps she hides the Goethe books there so that she can keep them for herself until someone asks for them!” But no. Over the course of the afternoon, this happened with several other books, from a volume of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac to Uncle Vanya to Spock Must Die to The Compleat Angler. Every time, the shop owner deliberated for about a second before leading the customer directly to the book, amidst what seemed to be incredible chaos. As the hours passed, I noted that she spent the entirety of her downtime at the counter reading one book after another. She knew where everything was because the shop was her personal library.
It was truly remarkable.
Although I already owned what there was of Goethe, I left with a healthy stack of other books and returned there several times over the course of a ten-day holiday. I only wish more people had done the same; the loss of this wonderful store makes me rather sad for the residents of Honolulu. I hope that the extraordinary woman who ran the shop has found an equally productive way to use her passions and gifts.
Used-book stores are more than secondhand retail. They tend a flame of adoration before the printed word, which must not be allowed to go out. They are places of discovery, knowledge, kinship of heart. Or in less violet a hue, they tend to be places where the quiet, quirky, and bookish heart will feel most like itself, because it is at home. The used-book store is an irreplaceable habitat that should be protected because it is unique and deserves to survive.