Used Bookstores: A Lifelong Love Affair

Bookery Limited, a used bookstore I invaded on a recent vacation.

Bookery Limited, a used bookstore I invaded on a recent vacation in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley  .

Keep your Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble battles, your paltry 20% off discounts that spawn countless internet think pieces about the fate of the publishing industry: I’m a used bookstore type.

Ok, that’s overstating–I have a solid case of bookish polyamory. There’s room in my heart for free shipping and big box bookstores and tiny local indies and library book sales and Nook downloads. My shelves (physical and digital) sag under the weight of stuff I’ve found from all these sources. But the used bookstore? That’s my first love.

My family wasn’t literary–I didn’t have a library card until I was an adult on my own. So when I turned 16 and got a job and held that first paycheck in my hand, I was determined to start Building A Real Library Of My Very Own. I started doing math: $15 for a paperback or $25 for a hardcover at the Barnes & Noble (the only bookstore I knew of) = …not a lot of books on my grocery store cashier salary. So I got out the Yellow Pages (dating myself a bit here), looked up used bookstores in the area, and went out to see what I could see.

Lo! Miles of black-spined Penguin classics for under $2! I’m supposed to read all these, right? Aisles and aisles and rooms and rooms of literary bedlam at levels I only imagined in the offices of crazed, recluse-like English professors! Every Nicholas Sparks book ever written (Do they multiply overnight?)! I spent a ridiculous amount of my high school years developing a foundation of used bookstore skills, scanning shelf after shelf for the colophons of houses I had come to trust, compulsively alphabetizing out-of-order shelves in the more ramshackle stores, and yes, building A Real Library Of My Very Own in dribs and drabs of $5 here, $5 there.

And now it’s just a habit. I seek out the used bookstores (ok, all the bookstores) in any new town I visit. I’m on an eternal quest for quirky but sturdy hardcovers to replace those Bantam classics I bought and read to death in my earlier years. I’ve learned to tell the difference between spine breaks that signify a book has been loved and spine breaks that signify that the pages are about to fall out. I’ve learned to tell when the employees are sort of phoning it in or bending the rules (hello, publisher ARCs for sale and reprints labeled as first editions).

I used to hide in the stacks of disheveled used book stores to escape from my parents and my peers, letting the weight of all those words create a quiet, dusty fortress. Now I hide in them with my Starbucks and my Very Grown Up book tastes, seeking out that same dusty quiet. Sometimes I want the how-can-I-help-you cleanliness and ordered brightness of a new book store, but more often I find myself using my limited book shopping time to go slink around in the serendipitous chaos of the used book store, letting all that visual stimulation quiet my mind, being left alone by the owners who recognize me for what I am: a grumpy old pro. There’s a meditative ooommmmm-ness about rifling through presidential biography after presidential biography. There’s no room for worrying about whether you’re a shitty parent or whether you should go vegetarian again or how much you hate Congress when you’re focused on spotting that perfect old copy of Villette.

I don’t take my kids.

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