On Used Bookstores

Inspired by Sarah’s repeated hosannas, the search for Rankin’s early Rebus novels continues. No results yet, but on the way home last night, I did find two perfectly good, barely touched Jane Smiley hardcovers left in a box on the street. (The box had been recently put out. Despite bearing a preponderance of chick lit, several people dug into it right after me with telling avarice.) It’s amazing what kind of gems people will discard on the streets or at garage sales. It’s also fascinating how a particular book you’re looking for will crop up when you least expect it.

In the case of Rankin, oh sure, I could have ordered the book through Alibris. But that would be too easy. I enjoy the hunts through used bookstores, the conversations with the proprietors and tome-happy, toe-tapping and criminally underpaid clerks, and the tips other people offer on books. Of course, if I don’t find the Rankin book by the end of the month, then I’ll go the Alibris route. But I think there’s some serendipitous discovery being lost when we order a book online. The spine sticking out adjacent to another book, the different editions, the strange cover art. There’s something magical in the way our brains index all this visual intake and retain unexpected authors, which in turn lead us to unexpected books. We may not remember every title, but we are capable of noticing a recherche edition on the stacks that we haven’t seen elsewhere.

The online book buying experience doesn’t offer anything close. You can’t reach for a dusty book at the top of a shelf, or climb to the top of a ladder while impersonating Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. It doesn’t offer anything close to the silent “A-ha” whisper when you enter these sanctums santorum with fellow book freaks. The obscure author, part of this pleasant tomb for the unknown titles, signaled with a protruding finger and a deep assurance that you must read him.

The used bookstore may take time away from one’s life. Time away from reading or writing or loving. But it does offer a way for one to amalgamate the reading experience with living. Or possibly the illusion of it. The books, as usual, come first.