March 19, 2005

Inside a Used Bookstore

There is a used bookstore, which I shall not name, in San Francisco. It may very well be the most nightmarish book dealer in California, worse even than the boxy blockbuster outlets where clerks are sadly illiterate and where shelf space is devoted to the dreaded popular offerings of our time.

It is neither the used bookstore's collection of books nor the crammed stacks that I have a problem with. Nor do I quibble over the store's remarkably inflated prices for its stock, which rivals Green Apple in fleecing the customer by pricing a dogeared hardcover with fecal matter and other questionable deposits left by previous readers at a mere four dollars off the original price: $17 for a $21 hardcover now readily available in trade paperback, to give you one egregious example.

Rather, it is the eccentric and hopelessly depressed husband-wife team, lanky and listeless ex-hippies who appear to have never recovered from Altamont, who run the place. Upon entering, the purveyor is immediately assaulted by a paranoid "NO PHOTOS!" sign emblazoned in angry Shaprie on a viciously ripped piece of cardboard, presumably to ward off the legions of G-men and black helicopters that have stormed the place with expensive Nikons. And if you do not surrender your backpack to the proprietors within thirty seconds, they will unleash motley cries of horror and assorted accusations ("Thief! Thief!"), as if you have just molested an infant. You are given half a playing card to hold onto and if you have any questions about whether the store has a particular title in stock, you are told to fend for yourself. Clearly, despite being in retail for years, this miserable couple has failed to grasp the basic idea that showing a customer where an object of desire resides might result in a sale.

I generally avoid this place because I find it disheartening to see something as inspiring as a large collection of books sullied by the variegated vagaries of glum vendors as yet uncategorized in the DSM-IV. The last time I had browsed the bookstore, I was reprimanded for not buying anything. And it was suggested then that I was somehow contributing to the store's financial shortfall.

My friends know me as an easy forgiver. And since my last encounter with these jaded overlords had been a year ago, since I was in a cheery mood, since I happened to be in the neighborhood, and since I had recently bemoaned how difficult it was to find Anthony Burgess titles that very afternoon with friends (outside of A Clockwork Orange), I thought I'd give my revived Burgess hunt a go.

Burgess, I should point out, is an author I adore. A brave, playful and remarkably prolific writer writing across several genres (science fiction, historical fiction, pointed British satire) who is no longer alive and whose books remain in print only through the most precarious of midlist conditions. If ever there was a time to buy Burgess, the time was now. Before he became relegated to the dust heap of forgotten novelists, until the inevitable "rediscovery" essay in the April 2039 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

Burgess, I'm delighted to report, was found: specifically, The Long Day Wanes, a collection of Burgess' Malayan trilogy that I had not read. I approached the counter, ready to welcome Burgess back into my life. The wife was there, a moribund look hidden beneath hanks of stringy gray hair.

"This book's been sitting there since 1998," she said. "No one has touched it."

"Well, I'm glad I rescued it from extinction. It's a pity that Burgess has been on the decline the past ten years."

The second sentence was the wrong thing to say.

"Oh boy. Have you heard my rant?"

Before I could say no thank you, the woman let loose a hysterical rambling about how most people can't read, how 50% of America can't even read street signs, and how barely anybody in the City reads books.

"Did you know that?" she sneered, tapping her fingers on a counter pocked with numerous dents and scratches, waiting for the inevitable moment to deliver part two.

"Wait a minute," I replied. "We're the top national city for bookstores. Number ten on the most literate city list."

She didn't hear me. She carried on with how money was being siphoned off for computers instead of books in the libraries. Homeless people waiting for three hours to check their email in lines. Bill Gates and his financial stranglehold on schools. And then she revealed the ultimate demon itself! The Internet. All a bunch of rabid lies.

"Actually, the Internet's been pretty good to me. There's an ongoing debate over literary issues. And without the Internet, I don't think I'd have nearly as many John P. Marquand books as I do. Of course, I hit every used bookstore I could find first."

"Where did you order?"


"Where did you order?"


"Let me tell you something about Alibiris. It's one giant warehouse."

"Really? That's strange. I've had packages come in from used bookstores in Utah and Illinois."

"It's all a front. You need to order from Abe Books." (As it turns out, the lady was right on this point. Alibris sends consigned books with inflated prices for titles that used sellers provide through its warehouse with the bookstore's name and logo on the packages.)

Admonished for making a mistake I wasn't aware of, I didn't receive a thank you. And given the moribund harangue and the rampant accusations, I certainly won't be buying from the place again.

But it does make me ponder how anyone can remain in the used bookstore business with any shred of sanity intact. Any retail business is ripe with problems, subject to the cash flow of any given month and whatever remains in savings to stay afloat. But that's still no excuse to bombard your customers with vitriol. After all, they're the devoted dreamers keeping the bookstores alive.

Posted by DrMabuse at March 19, 2005 06:48 PM

Goddamn. That sounds like something out of Black Books.

Posted by: Graham at March 19, 2005 09:36 PM

Are we trading stories about cranky used-bookstore owners in the Bay Area? I got a truckload . . .

Posted by: Scott at March 23, 2005 10:13 AM