It's the new black.

Puzzle for the Day: Used Bookstores

Unknown epigraph to James Joyce

There are few things in life that give me more pleasure than walking into a used bookstore. The anticipation looms as I walk in, hoping, praying that it’ll live up to all my expectations of variety and layout (the tipsier the better). I love the smell of old books  (some call it must, I call it history) and the cracking noise they make when you open them, and how they flip to a certain page, remnants of a past owner and his or her preference perhaps.

In this same vein, I also can’t understand used bookstores in the least. Why would anyone get rid of books? Revision: why would anyone get rid of classic books?  Because each time that I enter a used bookstore, I gravitate invariably to the fiction, poetry, and drama sections; there, I always find copies of Austen, Hemingway, Donne, and Shakespeare, and I repeat—why would anyone get rid of these? I would say that perhaps they were duplicates in someone’s collection, but as a hoarder with 7 copies of Pride and Prejudice, I reject that option as well. In a logical world, I would imagine a used bookstore to be filled with mediocre harlequin romances (the best and the worst would, of course, remain on the shelves for entertainment—Jilly Cooper, I’m looking at you), boring meditations on tansy or some other obscure herb, and copies of Twilight. Then again, that’s my logic; I’m not allowing for difference of taste or style. Still, I protest fervently that these are classic, canonized works and should not, under any circumstances, be thrown away like copies of Nora Roberts (offense wholeheartedly intended).

Maybe some people don’t like Austen or Hemingway or Donne or Shakespeare. Maybe they found it boring in school, or worse they didn’t even read it in school. Maybe these books remind them of awful past events, of tragic moments in their lives or the lives of those they love.

Maybe they’re just lazy.

I honestly could come up with millions of reasons why these books have been given away and put up for sale. As a literati and a bit of a culture snob, I can’t honestly understand or agree with many of them, but that’s what makes these troves so interesting: used bookstores are harbingers of stories.  They’re a gateway of possibilities, both through the literary experiences they afford and the history of these objects. Who owned them? Why are they here now? Inevitably, upon opening up the front cover of a book or two, you will come across a name, or even an inscription. A clue. A remnant. There’s something quite beautiful and something quite sad about the whole thing, reading “To Emily, All my Love, Jack” and knowing that this copy of Chekov now belongs to the world, that Jack’s love is public, and that this physical manifestation is lost. Someday, I’d love to collect all these used books with the names and inscriptions from prior owners and just see what happens when they all come together. Better yet, I’d love to collect the owners and return this history to them. Then again, maybe they don’t want to go back.

I’m a book collector by nature, thus I can’t understand used bookstores. But that’s why I keep going in; I’d like to try. – Hannah


One comment on “Puzzle for the Day: Used Bookstores

  1. hairsprayandhemingway
    July 17, 2012

    Last year, I found an old travel book in an antique shop. On the first page it said: “Here’s wishing you a wonderful trip. Dad.” It was really quite sad, reading the note intended for someone and seeing it dusty and abandoned. But after all, they are just books, even if they are lovely. Not everyone, unfortunately, is capable of cherishing seven copies of Pride and Prejudice, though they should try.
    Wonderful writing, cheers!

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