Over a period of 40 years I have amassed a personal library of about 5,000 volumes: mostly non-fiction, but some fiction of all kinds, and a wide variety of scholarly and non-scholarly monographs. Having recently downsized my accommodations, I had to weed out about 1,500 of these books, which was a very difficult project. Basically, many of the books I kept to “read in my retirement” I could now safely jettison, since the heart of the collection will occupy my remaining years (hopefully 20 more good ones…). Yes, some of them did not “age” well, so books from the ’70s that were clearly outdated were the easiest to let go.
But the reason for writing this is that I called the local branch of the Atlantic County New Jersey Library System and asked if they would take the books. To my delight, they agreed. But when I delivered them (including a like-new set of Mark Sullivan’s Our Times — a reprint of the six volumes from the 1930s, and a real treasure), the librarian refused to accept any of them, saying that the person who answered the phone was a new employee who was misinformed. How? The library DOES NOT TAKE ANY BOOKS MORE THAN FIVE YEARS OLD!!!!
I was aghast! What a travesty! One of the most formative experiences of my life was spending most of the month of July in the Princeton University Library between my junior and senior years in High School back in the mid-’60s. It was all open stack then, and I was researching a paper on mapmakers (in the Western World during the 16th — 19th centuries). Obviously, I allowed myself to be distracted by many other books in the stacks every day (a kind of antique Twitter experience). And yes, some of the books that were there had never been opened in the 50 years since they had been acquired (I had to carefully cut some of the page edges to leaf through them). But in every case I thought about the work and research and thought and effort that had gone into producing these books. The smells (glue, leather, old paper) and the atmosphere in those stacks made for an obviously memorable experience.
I now purchase most of my books for my Kindle, and even then, I keep a “Kindle List” on Amazon, because I would soon clog up the damn thing if I didn’t. And why spend however much on books I might not actually read when I can keep track of the reading list on Amazon’s site and purchase and download them as needed? That works fine for me. But only because of all that preceded it: my parent’s library that I grew up with (about a thousand volumes on all subjects), the Princeton Library, working as a volunteer in my hometown library when I was in high school, the research libraries at colleges I attended (Antioch and Temple), plus the Univ. of Pennsylvania stacks where I did research in the ’70s for a Masters Degree, and enjoying acquiring my own collection (often remainders and overstocks at a deep discount).
I don’t buy from university press sale catalogs anymore — a lot of the books I ended up dumping had been purchased that way for my “first” library. And I hardly purchase from general book catalog sellers anymore, either. Most of my purchases are from Amazon, when I do purchase hard copies, and from a couple of book clubs. But I still very much enjoy perusing the shelves of book stores, and will occasionally pick up something from their discount shelf. When I’m travelling and have a bit of extra time, I’ll visit used book stores, and sometimes buy a volume or two that leaps out at me. I even visited such a shop at the Minneapolis airport recently, and added a few extra pounds to my luggage while waiting for my plane.
Do I read all these books? Of course not, but I peruse most of them, and have dipped into almost all of them from time to time. And when online searches don’t yield enough information about a subject, I can often get the info I want from my own bookshelves.
I can’t finish this topic without a nod to the “book meccas” I still love, even though I have to curtail my purchases severely.
First in line (though not the best) are the Bouquinistes in Paris on the banks of the Seine. They are stalls consisting of four wooden boxes that serve as de facto book shelves for the booksellers who ply their wares from this most picturesque of locales. Each spot is assigned by seniority, the stalls are required to be open at least four days a week, and all the boxes are painted a regulation green in vert wagon paint (the color of old train cars). The waiting time to become one of the city’s 250 bouquinistes is currently about eight years. Many of the books are in French, quite a few in English, and a smattering in other languages. You probably won’t find anything truly spectacular here, but the browsing is wonderful.
The second book mecca I have visited (too many times) is Charing Cross Road in London, between Leicester Square tube station on the north end and Cambridge Circus on the south end. There are both used/second-hand shops here (“Any Amount of Books,” for instance) and antiquarian book stores such as Quinto and Henry Pordes (a dozen or so smaller second-hand and specialist antiquarian bookshops can be found on the adjoining Cecil Court, as well). There are also a few stores selling new books there now such as Foyles and Blackwell’s, since it’s a logical location for selling books of all kinds.
It is also a “manageable” shopping experience. If you have two or three hours you can probably make it into every shop, with no more than four or five likely to draw you in for a lengthy perusal. Many of the stores also have tables out front to give you some idea of what’s inside.
The book “84 Charing Cross Road”, written in 1970 was based on a correspondence between an author and the staff of a shop on the street. It was made into a 1986 film with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.
I have saved the best for last (or at least it used to be the best… the last time I was there in the early ’00s, it seemed a bit down-at-the-heals and shabbier than I had remembered). It is the town of Hay-on-Wye (that’s the river Wye) in Wales. It is a three-and-a-half hour drive from central London, which means with a round-trip it’s a long day out. There are, of course, many accommodations in this delightful part of Britain, so you might make a two-day trip out of it (or longer, if you visit Oxford on the way back, for example, or linger in the Cotswolds).
Anyway, there are two dozen very large booksellers in the town (it’s smallish, so you can walk everywhere). While there are some specialty stores (like Murder and Mayhem), or Arden (books on gardening and beekeeping), most are generalists carrying a little of everything. But “a little” here could be hundreds of books, and almost all of the stores have the stock sorted by category. A few are just a jumble, which you will either shy away from as not worth the trouble, or will be drawn into like quicksand. You’ll see.
Prices in all three of these meccas are extremely varied. I have found some real steals, but typically, a worthwhile book will be the in $5 to $10 range (converting to US currency), although there are plenty in the $2.50 to $5 range, many are even cheaper (and not in fine condition, for sure) while some are sold by lots (five for $10, for example). Occasionally a special book will be over $10, but I would say the average overall is about $3.75. So ten books for $37.50 isn’t too bad. And I have found that almost all of the shops (except the new booksellers on Charing Cross Rd., of course) are willing to negotiate. If I have nine books that ring up at $37.95 (three at $1.00, two at $2.50, and four at $5.00 plus a fine volume at $9.95), they might take $35 for all of them, which means the three at $1.00 are “free.” I could also try to get a full five dollars off, but I’ve had better luck getting a lower price if I don’t try to use the “pendulum” method of asking for a bigger discount and accepting something in between. I’m not sure why, but it just seems like the book folks are more willing to make a quick slice without thinking more about it than to “haggle” over the discount.
Of course, there are two ways of looking at any of these prices. They are all insanely cheap, or they are ridiculously high, because any given book is going to be of any value at all to only a very tiny group of people.
Two final notes — in the June 23, 2014, issue of The New Yorker, there is a wonderful article about the Argosy Bookstore in New York, which is essentially an “antiquarian” bookstore, which means that although it deals in some “used books,” because they buy entire libraries from estates, they specialize in valuable old and rare books such as first editions, signed first editions, specially bound volumes, and maps, prints, and paintings. The maps and prints are a specialty unto themselves. This is NOT what I call a book mecca, because aside from a table full of what is, to them, “junk,” I am not interested in everything else they are actually selling. When I say not interested, I mean in purchasing. In general? I’m sure I could spend a delightful week just browsing!
Incidentally, Patti Smith, whom I talk about in another post, is mentioned in The New Yorker article as a devotee of The Argosy. She also said she worked there briefly in 1967. [Related to Patti, as I note in that other post, she grew up in the next town over from me in South Jersey. Every year in Woodbury, my hometown, a rug store on Cooper Street held a very substantial used book sale to raise money for charity. They had plenty of space to do this. I bought a few sets of 19th classics there among other quite a few things. Patti undoubtedly knew about this annual sale, and it is not inconceivable that we might have both been browsing there in the early 1960s.]
Second, New York City has The Strand, which was one of 48 bookstores on Book Row in New York, which started in the 1890’s and ran from Union Square to Astor Place. Today, the Strand is the sole survivor. Located at the corner of 12th Street and Broadway, it claims to have “18 miles” of new, used, and rare books. It truly does have a little of everything. And I have been there many times. But I did not separate it as a fourth “mecca” because it is only a single store. You could say, “Yes, but what a store!” And you’d be quite justified.
Three Final Notes
Most of these stores (especially The Strand) accept mail orders or online orders. So you don’t have to be there in person, although of course you are never completely certain of the condition of the book (they are usually very honest in their ratings/rankings; if they say it is a “clean” copy, there are no markings, at least in the text, although there may be a handwritten inscription on the flyleaf if it were given as a gift).
Finally, a note on “remainders.” While the majority of books found in used book stores have been purchased at least once, and are now being resold (hence the term “used”), there is a huge category of books referred to as “remainders,” which are books that the book stores or publishers have never managed to sell in the first place. I won’t go into a lengthy explanation about this (other than to say that recent articles related in general to this subject referred to the publishers’ “depression era” protocols with booksellers with regard to returns). These are basically “overstocked” items, where more books were printed than there was a market for. The key issue is this: when the publisher gives up on trying to sell the book, and it becomes a “remainder,” they “mark” the book so that it cannot be considered new, usually by taking a heavy black magic marker and running a line across the bottom of the closed book’s pages. This tell-tale stripe is the “scarlet letter” of bookselling. And it turns up on most highly discounted books for sale in “regular” bookstores outside of the “meccas” I’ve described above. As you can well imagine, my library contains more than its fair share of these remainder stripes. Forget QR Codes - these black marks of infamy tell big stories all on their own, of frustrated authors, reckless publishers, and the antics of what is, when you come right down to it, a very fickle market. I can’t think of any other item that can go from “red hot” to next to worthless and lose its value so quickly. Even cell phones typically have a good two-year useful life. But a book can become landfill in about six months, and alas, so many do!
A Final Word
There are three catalogs of remaindered and overstock books that I can’t ignore in this post. The first is Daedalus Books and Music, located in Columbia, MD. I have ordered numerous books from Daedalus over the years, and know a number of their managers personally. It is a wonderful outfit. You can visit their Website and save yourself the trouble of travelling to a book mecca (of course, many of the book mecca shops and dealers have their own sites, as well).
The second is Hamilton Books in Fall Village, Connecticut. I suspect it is a lot like The Strand, except to the best of my knowledge only sells by catalog and eCommerce. Most of Hamilton’s books are remainders, so they come with the black stripe, but they are, by definition, not used books, and therefore in essentially new condition (unless otherwise indicated). I seem to recall a dozen years ago or more some extravagant story about the capricious behavior of the proprietor (who may or may not be called “Edward R. Hamilton”). But that’s just gossip (and could be entirely apocryphal). What matters is that Hamilton Books may indeed be the best book mecca of all, since I would be willing to bet that they can outdo The Strand in terms of scope, breadth, and price, and they have 14 separate catalogs (with current and “close-out” book versions of each to choose from)! All shipments are returnable, if not satisfied, but they ship only within the U.S.
And the third is Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. It could be called The Strand of the West, because it is so similar in size, scope, and ambience. But its catalogs and Website resemble Hamilton Books even more. I have, of course, visited Powell’s, and spent the entire afternoon there. Having bought so many books from them it seemed more like a “homecoming” than a visit to mecca. The place has more of the ambiance of a rabbit warren than The Strand, but like any used book store, it has its own personality, it’s “highways and byways.” Just exploring these places is half the fun!
There are two major bookselling Websites that I also buy from (a lot!) that aggregate their offerings from multiple sources. The first and best is AbeBooks.com, which lists what it offers in any order you choose: by price, by condition, by edition, by binding, by bookseller location, etc. The book condition is always as good or better than described. I love this site! it doesn’t deserve to be so close to the P.S. category! The other one (which sometimes cross-lists on Abe) is Alibris, which also sells some new books. Despite some bad reviews online, I have never had any trouble with them over the years.
P.S. To anyone who might be inspired by this post to start purchasing such books online, beware the possibility that a book may have a U.S. version with one title and a British version with a significantly different title, or that it might be one title in the first edition, and a different title in subsequent editions. I won’t go into all the ins-and-outs of it. Just be careful!