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Our Reading Lives

On Falling in Love With (and in) Used Bookstores

Sharanya Sharma

Staff Writer

Growing up, Sharanya Sharma was frequently caught leaving home and tumbling into places like Hogwarts, Prydain, and Frell. These days, she spends most of her time running around after (adorable) children in Washington, DC, trying to teach them things like math and social studies and reading. Especially reading. All of her spare time (and change) is spent in bookstores, inhaling books and coffee. She's had a life-long love affair with middle-grade and YA lit, and hopes to write her own novel(s) in those genres some day. Blog: Inkstinedreads Twitter: @srsharms

My parents fell for each other while visiting used book stores. I like to think there was something about the soft light hitting towers of dusty paperbacks, about the coziness of navigating tight mazes of stories that brought them closer together in a way dates at the local movie theater couldn’t. Maybe that’s why, even thirty-something years after those first dates, my mom or dad has to stop the car when they pass by a store for the books that people loved in the past, whether it was gently or fiercely. They do this whether they’re in India, their home country, or in the middle of moving me into my small dorm room in Pennsylvania for the first time. They do this even when they are seriously stressed about the lack of time for whatever pressing thing needs to be done.

Maybe it’s because they know that time means something different in a used book store. Time tells its own story there, through crinkled, folded pages and faded notes of hope, celebration, or good wishes underneath dedications. Maybe it’s because when they find these books, they feel a connection to a world larger and older than themselves, and that brings them closer to each other.

Or maybe it’s because there’s something inherently sweet about finding each other again after being lost in the catacombs of plots, actions, conflicts, and resolutions. Because make no mistake, when it comes to browsing books, my parents inevitably separate. And in our modern-day book franchises, they need look no further than the giant, clear signs that mark the different genres to reaching one another after a parting. For my mom: literary fiction, with a special eye for South Asian writers or books that take place in exotic locations. For my dad: nonfiction books with a mathematical, scientific, or religious bent (his favorites include all three). But in a store for used books, at least in the ones they love best of all, it’s all about organized chaos. You have to get lost in order to get to what you want. And so, naturally, you have to wander through all kinds of alley ways made by careworn tomes piled ceiling-high. Occasionally you’ll find yourself staring at a wall of books placed one on top of the other like strange, multi-colored bricks, and need to turn back around to find the front. So maybe, when one of my parents finally did find their partner near the cashier’s desk somewhere by the front door and said, “Yes, I’m ready to go now,” it felt different.

Or maybe there are other, infinitely more practical reasons why my parents love used book stores so. But whatever the reason, their thirst for books that are read, loved, forgotten, then found again is something I look on with a mixture of curiosity and fascination. While I love the feel, the look, the hidden messages in an old book, I love the modern-day book store just as much, and maybe sometimes more so. I thrill in touching covers that glow with newness under the bright store lights, and the perfect smoothness of an uncracked spine. I revel in being able to use the necessary post signs to navigate the fastest route to the books that I know are waiting for me. It’s all about speed, order, and controlled exploration for me.

Which is why, the more I think about it, the more I realize that what my parents do is pretty brave — thrilling, even. I can almost start to imagine their younger selves as eager explorers, wandering through labyrinthine passages. And though their willful dating days are far behind them, these sudden pit stops, these impulsive visits to those little rooms full of nooks and crannies, give me a glimpse of who they used to be — and remind me that the journey to the right book can be just as adventurous as the story itself.