Don’t let the secondhand bookstores die

I was perched on top of a stepladder scanning the top shelf of a tall bookcase when I hit the jackpot: an old leather-bound edition of Gladstone’s memoirs. Heading north on a road trip, my friend and I had stopped in at a second-hand bookshop inhabiting a century-old mill. He’d been hunting for the obscure title for years, and when I passed it down to him, he actually shouted with excitement. This brought the storeowner scurrying over. Her face lit up when she was told that his long search had ended in her store. That was a few years ago, and he still occasionally brings it up when we discuss our latest literary acquisitions: Remember when we found Gladstone at that old mill?

I thought of that excursion and many like it recently while reading news of bookshop closures, while Amazon continues to swell with swallowed competitors. This trend has only accelerated in recent months, with more and more customers moving their business from the stores to their smartphones. And I get it—Amazon is convenient. I’m awaiting a book I pre-ordered in order to write a review as I write this. But still—there is no reason to allow second-hand bookshops to become extinct.  

When I was a boy, my grandmother and I would often head off for an entire Saturday afternoon of plundering local bookshops and poking around the stacks in thrift stores, usually culminating in a haul of several full bags. My late grandfather found her love of these stores exasperating, so much so that she always knew when he spotted one when they were driving together. He would abruptly stomp on the gas and the car would lurch past the store before she could suggest they stop and browse. When we would arrive back at their house with our pile of books to gloat over, he would eye us from his chair in the corner with bemused exasperation.

Even the Kitsch is Fake

For all the valiant efforts of the corporate owners of the new bookstores to mimic an atmosphere of authenticity, the result is almost always just a badly-disguised warehouse with a mildly sterile feel. Each second-hand bookshop, on the other hand, has an utterly original and inimitable atmosphere. There’s even that distinct aroma – a sort of of eau de nostalgia – a combination of old books, well-worn pages, and the dust of a hundred households. In some of the older shops, a faint whiff of pipe smoke can occasionally be discerned if you linger among the stacks long enough. Even the stale and musty smell of books that have sat in attics or garages for years has a certain familiarity to it. There is something comforting about the continuity of great books passing from home to home, and bookshops are the conduit for this great exchange.

My favorite bookshop in my hometown of Chilliwack, which I’ve visited for decades now, is a perfect example of the fabulous eclecticism of these establishments. Nuggets Used Books always reminds me of the slogan of Dave’s record store in Stuart MacLean’s famous Vinyl Café stories: “We may not be big, but we’re small.” The walls and shelves are festooned with old records (from The Archies to the speeches of Winston Churchill); figurines from forgotten fads; slightly moth-eaten taxidermy; a Hardy Boys boardgame from the 1960s; a mounted moose head sporting eyeglasses peering out over the cash. The shop is awash with the pop culture flotsam and jetsam of five or six decades, the sort of kitsch that chain bookstores like Chapters often try – and fail – to replicate. Try as they might, even their kitsch is fake.

It’s true that in a second-hand bookshop, you won’t be able to wander the stacks with a Starbucks in hand. Any baked goods and coffee will be home-made, but that’s all part of the experience. You don’t visit an old friend for the quality of the coffee, after all. You won’t be able to grab a copy of Cosmo (and you shouldn’t, anyway) but you may find old National Geographic magazines from the 1920s. You may not find the latest sci-fi teen novel, but you might find a contemporary 1800s edition of the works of Hannah More, as I did in an old bookstore in Ottawa a few years back, after a long chat with the proprietor.

The Complicated Lives of Booksellers

In a used bookstore you won’t find a shiny new computer for you to search for the title you’re seeking parked every six feet. As a result, you’ll be forced to have a human interaction with the shop owner.

The thing about bookshop owners is that most of them don’t actually want to sell their books and wouldn’t if they didn’t have to. One wizened fellow told me mournfully that his wife restricted his book collection to a single room in their home, and I got the sense that he saw those pillaging the shelves of his store as slightly better than thieves. After an hour of perusing the cluttered shelves and precarious stacks in one now-closed Vancouver bookshop – during which I had at least one close call in the basement, literally stacked to the rafters with avalanche-prone piles of heavy volumes – I discovered an extraordinary and unique historical document that I’ve never seen before or since. Upon arriving at the cash register, the owner reacted with genuine alarm, informing me that he hadn’t priced that dusty item yet and stashing it carefully out of reach behind the counter.

Entering another bookshop I frequented and inquiring as to why the seller seemed downcast, he informed me that a customer that morning had purchased a stack of early edition World War II diaries he’d been hoping to keep. Never have I met shop owners so saddened by their own success.

Indeed, if you wish to see a bookshop owner grow white and fearful, lean on the counter and peer at the volumes stacked on the shelf behind the counter, which he will only retrieve with great reluctance. The relationship between bookshop owners and their customers is based on a profound mutual empathy. We understand why they don’t want to sell any of their books, and they understand that we want to buy them as much as they want to keep them. Because they must, they do, and so they derive a vicarious joy from the new owners of their precious volumes.

Booksellers will hunt down books you’re searching for, and when they call to let you know they’ve struck gold, they’re usually as excited as you are. After all, they’ve been hunting for what you’ve been hunting for, and in a way, you’ve found it together. I’ve known Neil, the owner of Nuggets, for a couple of decades, and though I haven’t lived on the West coast for ten years, I almost always stop in to catch up when I’m visiting and smoke a cigar outside his shop. Often, I bring my grandmother. Usually, he has something stashed behind the counter that he’s been saving for months that he thinks one of us would be interested in. He’s almost always right.

Killing the Thrill

The conveniences of the Internet and the devastation wrought on small shops is pushing another experience towards extinction: The thrill of the hunt.

I’ve been collecting antiquarian books of all sorts for years. Some took me years to find. The feeling of scanning that final bookshelf tucked away in an alcove of some small shop and finding the last volume in a series I’ve been working on for a decade or more is exhilarating. But now, one can simply log on to Ebay or Amazon and fill a virtual shopping cart with an entire set from sellers on several continents in a matter of minutes. After receiving an Amazon gift card as compensation for writing a column some time ago, I did just that. When the books arrived in the mail and I took them down to my library, I felt an unmistakable sense of letdown. The experience of book collecting was traded for convenience. Once you eliminate the actual activity of collecting, all that is left is spending money and amassing things.

The Internet has also devastated antiquarian and second-hand bookshops because it has killed the definition of rare. In an era where nearly everything in the world is a few clicks away, nothing is rare anymore. Booksellers who acquired the skill of tracking down obscure titles and rare volumes over decades found their talents become obsolete in a few short years. Wandering the Steiner antiquarian bookstore in Bratislava last year, I asked the owner how business was. She shook her head: “Awful.” The Steiner bookshop was founded in 1847, and a plaque near the doorway over the cobblestones honours the “memory of sixteen members of the family who died in concentration camps in 1942-1944. “May their souls be bound up in the bond of everlasting life. Remember and never forget!” Now, sales are so low that storied establishments such as this one teeter on the brink of bankruptcy. To lose these shops would be a real shame.

Still, there are plenty of second-hand bookshops to peruse. My long-suffering wife still often accompanies me on lengthy excursions to wander through them (although she did get revenge one afternoon in Boston after I purchased an enormous 19th century pulpit edition of The Book of Common Prayer, which she made me carry for hours as she hunted for the sculptures of Robert McCloskey’s famous birds in Make Way for the Ducklings.) The experience of second-hand bookshops is as rare as we decide to make it, and the shops and their owners await anyone who wishes to take the time. Buying books doesn’t have to be an experience devoid of human conversation, exploration, anticipation, and even nostalgic aromas. And after all, as this blog notes, things should take awhile.

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