Friday, June 30, 2006

Used bookstores, old books, and the Internet

Library girl hearts used bookstores.

I love all libraries and I’ll give any new book store at least one chance. Used bookshops, however, are another matter entirely.

There is a definite art to putting together a second-hand establishment, and the great ones have a mixture of dependability in terms of quality, high turnover, and a degree of chaos. The true joy behind paying one a visit is browsing and serendipitously stumbling upon a gem. It’s also thrilling to have a title in mind and then find exactly what you’re looking for on the shelf. Such a pleasure is taken for granted in chains. There is also the specific sound of creaking floors in quiet rooms which I love, and a certain ubiquitous used-but-not-unpleasant smell that most seem to possess.


I order most used books over the Internet these days, but something is missing. The serendipity, for one thing. I have discovered some of my favorite books by taking a chance on a volume by an unknown (to me) author. I've also found old chestnuts on the shelves which gave me a thrill of recognition: Samuel Smiles' Self Help is one that I remember. Of course, you do get some of that in a library. But in a conscientiously run library, someone has patiently gone through the shelves and discarded all the books no-one reads. Unfortunately, those are the books I like.

The Wilmington Institute appears to have kept a lot of old books nobody reads. I try to take the poor things for an outing from time to time so that circulation records will show that someone has read them.

I liked the Hackensack (NJ) Library for the same reason. Every time I found a book with an old cover, perhaps a library binding, I took it home to read. I tried to read some dreadful books, it's true, but I also discovered some beauties. When the library converted to an automated system, these books ended up in the dumper.
I used to consult Jacques Barzun's wonderful book a Catalog of Crime, still available at Amazon. I try the "reduced for final sale" area of the local Barnes & Noble, and have found a few--very few--goodies that way.

Abebooks is a good source of older books, if you know what you want. but the infuriating thing is tht you can't discover something new that way. You have to know wht you are looking for.

Bookstores and libraries are above all venues--places to go, each with its own distinct personality. You can't get that from a database.

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