Used Bookstores, Used Books

Used Bookstores, Used Books

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation.

Recently, I talked about big box bookstores, and how they should maybe start calling themselves books and a whole big bunch of only slightly related stuff plus a café stores. I can’t come out against these multi-level monsters, I’m not that much of a snob, and I’ve spent plenty of money in there myself. I think anything that lures a person into the act of reading is doing the world a favor. Ah, but small, local bookstores are a different kind of animal. They smell, for one thing. Ever noticed the smell when you walked into a Borders? And coffee doesn’t count. It’s unlikely. Modern life in general frowns on smells. Used bookstores smell, and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s slightly sweet, dusty, maybe a little moldy…It’s the smell of what age and time do to knowledge.

Almost as interesting as the books themselves, I love looking at inscriptions written in old books. I think people from an earlier time were more willing to write in books, and more likely to give them as gifts. The penmanship is always expressive and grand, as if the inscriber knew someone in the 21st century would be looking back on what they said that Christmas of 1921, from Mother, or your devoted forever with love from Birdy. I always wonder, why that particular book? Why did it resonate with the giver? And how did it wind up in the pile of books to be sold? One of my favorites is an old copy of Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories — a classic that had been out of print for a while. I got it used and it has a sticker on the flyleaf that says “From the Library of Diana, comma, John.” Was it the library of Diana and John? Or did it belong to a very orderly John Diana? And how could they let it go? I’ll never know.

I bought a very old book of the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne because book itself was so intriguing. It was printed in 1851 with a beautiful embossed green fabric cover and old fashioned pen and illustrations with sheets of onionskin paper protecting them. It’s unfortunately falling apart, but that’s how I saw that it’s actually bound with pages from yet an older book — something about books for young readers, but so old and fragile I can’t quite make it out. On the inside cover is a sticker that reads “Library, Railroad Department, Young Mens Christian Association, Hoboken New Jersey”. There’s a space to write in your number, which a few people did. But the number of what? There’s no way to know. Imagine all the hands that book has passed through — no wonder it’s practically in tatters!

I’m so curious about the messages written in old books that I probably should be more forgiving about new ones. But I’m not. I once lent a friend a book and when I got it back — well, she’s not my friend anymore! She ripped a piece of the first page out — I don’t know why! And she wrote a phone number on another page! She must have been having some sort of psychotic episode! But I do have Joe’s phone number if you’re looking for it. And I suppose it’s possible that a hundred years from now, someone will be browsing the stacks in a used bookstore and say to themselves, “I wonder who Joe is? I’ll never know.”

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. Want to talk about books? Email me at Kim dot Alexander at xmradio dot com.