Monday, October 18, 2010

Ode to the Used Bookstore

Magus Used Books, one of my favorite haunts in the University District of Seattle

Dear readers, I would like to alert you to the plight of a very special endangered species. It isn't exotic or lovely...except maybe in that understated wabi sabi way, and supporting it isn't trendy, but saving it just may help to save your own life (or at least your intellect).

It is the used bookstore. You know the place, that little shop that always seems to be crammed into a space with odd corners down a side street, where the ceilings are high and furry with the dust of millenia, where the aisles are narrow canyons, and the books are a hodge podge of colors and textures organized by seemingly esoteric systems of logic. You wont find glossy best sellers or Operah recommended self help texts here....and if you do they will likely be be well-thumbed, their covers softening around the edges, and their pages dog-eared. In fact you often wont find what you came looking for at all, but will be led willo the wisp fashion into titles and genres that you never dreamed you would set foot in before.

Staring down one of the daunting canyons of books at Magus

Here the shiny smell of fresh ink and plastic that characterizes chain bookstores is replaced by the intoxicating odors of dust, earth, stale cigar smoke, decaying paper, and age. Every book already has a history, and in purchasing one you must acknowledge your place in a long line of owners. You wont be the first and you hopefully wont be the last. It can sometimes be a bit sobering, even eerie, to uncover evidence of past use; old photographs jammed in between the pages, a heartfelt dedication scralled on the title page, finger prints, food stains, and in older books, the marks of mother nature herself; the rust colored splotches known as foxing, mildew, water damage, and fading and crumbling from long exposure to sunlight or atmospheric pollution.

Family photos found in the back of an Oaxacan cookbook

Everything that you buy in a used bookstore is a relic of some sort, and for those of us with slim wallets, it can be exciting to buy a piece of history for only $5.95. But beware, you likely wont escape entirely financially unscathed. After hours of browsing in dim lighting you might emerge blinking mole-like into the sunlight, with an odd amount of money missing and a heavy stack of books that at an outsider's glance, appear to have no relation to one another. You will feel dazed, confused, and ridiculously happy. Everyone will know what you have been up to by the vacant, dreamy smile on your face and the way you keep dipping your hand into your bag on the way home to caress your discoveries.

A wonderful dedication from one man to another.

A very non-pc book from the 1950's about Westerners trying to understand Japanese culture

An out of print edition of an amazing scifi/horror novel

Im lucky enough to live near the University District of Seattle, where used bookstores flourish and are allowed to roam free, but there are many areas where the only bookstore to be found is one of those awful sprawling corporate edifices that always appears to be well-stocked but where you can never seem to find a thing worth paying the exorbitant price for. Its difficult to resist their glittering allure in favor of the quieter dun-colored pleasures of the used bookstore, but do it if you can. We cannot allow these treasure-troves to succumb to gentrification and fade out of existence. So support your local used bookstore or the one in the next town over and for those of you that still need convincing just consider- its the green thing to do. ;-)