Cool Bookish Places

Phase Three, The Barbershop, and Other Mysterious Bookstore Zones

Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

mysterious bookstore zones russell books

I work for an independent, family-owned, used-and-new bookstore that is more than 50 years old, spending the last 25 years in the same location. In that time, it has changed a lot: it’s gotten more organized, acquired a much bigger staff, stacked up a breathtaking amount of books, and it’s grown significantly to try to fit all of those books. What was once one floor of one building has now sprawled into the buildings beside it, with offshoots popping up a block away.

Russell Books seems to always be looking for one more foot of space to put some shelves in. Eventually, all rooms become book storage, and often storage then becomes browsable shelving. Just in the time that I’ve worked there, I’ve seen the ceilings raised to fit taller shelves, a new department for vintage and collectible books established, and back rooms discovered behind walls of stacked books. This piecemeal expansion has meant there are some quirks to our layout—yes, sorry, you do have to go back outside to get upstairs: it’s actually a different building, even though it’s the same store! As we acquire new locations to fill with books, they usually end up with nicknames, which are baffling for new employees.

When I started at the store more than 5 years ago, I was told to go the “new room.” That turned out to be one half of upstairs, which had been new…years ago, when it first opened. It’s still called the “new room,” even though about 2% of the staff can recall a time before it existed. It can be even more confusing than that to navigate: “downstairs” can mean at least three different places, depending on context: do you mean the main floor, Vintage, or the basement? And when you say “attic,” you mean the loft, right? No? That’s a different place??

At least the “New Room” and “Downstairs” sound like real places. Once you’ve been working there for a few weeks and someone asks you to grab a book out of the “sauna,” you have to pause for a minute. (To be honest, I still don’t know why that area is called the sauna, and I’ve asked.)

Head over to our sister store, Books On View, and things get even more mysterious. Phase Three is tucked away in one corner: our book purgatory, inaccessible to customers. Originally, though, it was in the “new room,” behind a hidden bookcase door, and to find the right book, you had to carry around your light, peering at the shelves as you went by.

Those are the pieces of bookstore geography you have to learn to get by at the store: locate the sauna, barbershop, Cactus, Phase Three. Know what working the “new room” means. And never go into the attic.

It’s a bit of a odd patchwork of rooms and buildings, but it shows the history of the store. It tells a story about expansion and optimism. When you work at a used bookstore, you get a lot of people musing about how bookstores, books, reading, and literacy are dying out. This is, of course, while I pull more stack of books out of the loft to fill our kids’ section shelves, which have been eagerly browsed by teachers, parents, kids, and teens all summer. I can see the progress this little corner of book culture has made in every added room and reinforced floor. I have a feeling this store, and the passion for books it represents, is not done growing yet.