Used Bookstores

Part of getting old is realizing that used bookstores, while very cool, are not quite as cool as you think they are when you first start browsing them in college. The realization comes gradually as you start to see many of the same books in diverse stores. Those certain titles that were wildly overprinted five and ten and twenty years ago find themselves clogging musty shelves across the country—and they’re probably not the titles you’re looking for. It’d be fun to compile a list of such books. Here’s a start: have you ever seen a fantasy/sci-fi section without at least one big blue copy of The One Tree by Stephen Donaldson?

The lustre of browsing used bookstores is also tarnished somewhat when you already know of more books that you’d like to read than you’ll have time for in the rest of your days. That’s not to say that I’m not always open to new authors, only that the threshold required to pique my interest is a little higher than “seems interesting there on the shelf.”

These days, when confronting a used bookstore, I don’t so much aimlessly browse as spot-check for the things I want to add to my collection: hardcover editions of Blood Meridian and Suttree, anything I don’t already have by W.H. Auden or Wallace Stevens, wacky editions of 1001 Nights or Alice in Wonderland. The list is longer than that, but not so long that most used bookstores fail to have that special something that I want that I don’t already have. When I moved to Arlington from Maryland a few years ago I did an exhaustive sweep of all the used bookstores in the area, and came away bitterly disappointed.

By these standards, Baldwin’s Book Barn in West Chester, PA is an exemplary place. It’s a four-storey barn full of books, emphasizing local history but with a good mix of everything else, including a surprisingly big children’s section. The best part is that they manage to fill the four stories without resorting to the sea of mass-market paperbacks that form the bulk of so many used bookstores’ stock. Almost everything there is actually shelfworthy1.

My haul there consisted mainly of things for Ella down the road: Andrew Lang’s The Green Fairy Book and The Red Fairy Book, along with a Tales from the Arabian Nights edition by him full of educational (and often wildly politically incorrect) sidenotes. Suanna also found a couple children’s books for Ella, too. The big ka-ching, though, was the four-volume first American edition of the Mardus & Mathers translation of A Thousand Nights and a Night. A find like that is enough to make you start aimlessly browsing used bookstores again.

1 shelfworthy: Visually pleasing on the shelf, based on shape, texture, and spine. Mass markets are almost never shelfworthy, and clothbound editions (especially with the dust jacket off) almost always are. Unless I’m picking up something to read on the airplane, I only buy shelfworthy books anymore.

UPDATE: More on shelfworthiness in this post.