Monday, September 12, 2005

Used book stores 

Thomas Benton worries that we're losing them to online sellers.
I grew up in an urban neighborhood that had only a few bookstores. One was a national chain that had the usual selection of best sellers, self-help books, travel guides, and an assortment of remainders on politics and entertainment. The other store was a used-paperback exchange, where you could return a book and pick up a new one for a quarter. It mostly stocked romance novels, spy thrillers, and horror stories. ...

I knew almost nothing about academic publishing until I arrived at college, and then I encountered scholarly books only in the library when I was writing research papers. Where were you supposed to buy them? Such books weren't sold in regular stores. As an undergraduate, most of the literary criticism in my personal library consisted of dozens of Cliff'sNotes that I read in tandem with books like Madame Bovary and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I never thought about a scholarly book -- say, an authoritative edition of a major author -- as something I might purchase until I arrived at graduate school in the early 1990s.

On my way to and from classes, I walked past used-book shops such as McIntyre & Moore, Pangloss, and Starr Books, which was at the rear of the Harvard Lampoon building. At first I was lured in by the discount racks next to their doors. Later, I became enraptured by the volumes of serious books about which I knew almost nothing. It was as exciting and humbling as discovering an unknown continent.

Gradually, buying books -- new as well as used -- became a habit, as the local booksellers siphoned off a substantial portion of the money I made as a research and teaching assistant.
Most campus bookstores today consist of an area where you find the textbooks for a course, and the rest devoted to the selling of college memorabilia. One that does not, of which I remain fond to this day, is the bookstore at the Claremont Colleges (where I went to graduate school). Though much smaller and with a much inferior collection to that available twenty years ago, the Huntley Bookstore still keeps a fairly nice collection of new scholarly works and some classics. Much of the collection I brought to St. Cloud came from there. (Like Benton, my urban neighborhood had the chain bookstores of the Seventies and those little used book places like you find in lake communities here in Minnesota, with romance and adventure books dominant.)

The other bookstores I saw in the village in Claremont too were quite special, such as Chancellery Lane and Claremont Books & Prints. Along with the Rhino Records shop, these sucked down a great deal of my assistantship money. To this day, I like old used bookstores. St. Cloud has one, and I have remarkably found good bookstores in places like Alexandria, MN. We vacation up there regularly, and no trip is complete without a stop at Vikingland.

I long ago stopped trying to track my purchases of books between used bookstores and hitting Abebooks or Powells online. I'm sure it's a small fortune, but what I've read is a fortune gained. I agree with Benton that online works great when you know what you're looking for, but you miss the pleasure of browsing to find something you had forgotten you wanted or to have a title catch your eye. Mrs. Scholar is amazingly tolerant of my wandering for hours around them, knowing that I find them intoxicating.