(With apologies to Barry Mann)
Sarah Hoyt’s recent post on The Day the Bookstores Died (no, not the actual title; I seem to be in a pop music mode this morning) got me thinking about my own issues with bookstores; specifically, used bookstores. I think (can’t prove) that one of the factors diminishing my enjoyment of used bookstores is, ironically, something that’s probably good for their bottom line: the ease of Internet research.
Half Price Books is the big dog of used bookstores in Austin and probably the only one I visited regularly in the last five or six years before my knees and back made standing and kneeling to browse the shelves a thing of the past, so I’m basing this on my experiences with them.
We buy too many books to begin with, and on top of that I used to get a ton of free and review copies, so staggering into Half Price with the ones that weren’t keepers was a regular experience, maybe three or four times a year. Once upon a time it was a pleasure outing, and the challenge was to leave with fewer books than I’d just dumped. Then, suddenly, it became less pleasurable, and I found it easy to take my money and run.
This change correlated with one I noticed behind the counter. Instead of unpacking the books, eyeballing them, and offering me a pittance for them, the clerk would now unpack the books and tell me to go away for half an hour or so. During that time, whenever I checked back, I could see a stack of the books I’d brought in beside the clerk, who was tapping away on a computer. Then they’d offer me the usual pittance.
I think that what they were doing was checking online prices for the books. Is this particular book a last year’s murder mystery with a resale value of 99 cents? Or is it an obscure treatise on hydrology that just so happens to be out of print and for which libraries or book collectors are willing to pay big bucks?
I further think that the books with large resale values went directly to the collectors and never showed up on Half Price’s shelves, because this change correlated with the one that diminished my browsing pleasure; suddenly it seemed that half their stock consisted of the kind of instant trash books that were published with the expectation they’d go directly to overstock sales, and the other half consisted of used copies of the last ten years’ bestsellers. Oh, there was still a handful of battered and much-loved books from somebody’s estate, but even those weren’t exciting finds.
It’s not that I was browsing in search of books to resell at a profit; as you may deduce from my habit of dumping the excess books on Half Price, I suck at selling books. (Even my own, but that is another story.) But much of my pleasure in browsing came from discovering obscure books that I thought would, some day, fit into research for a story – or that were fun to read in themselves. The enormous history and typology of horse-drawn carriages that I found on the top story of the old Half Price, back when it was a dusty book repository near downtown. The obscure Gene Stratton-Porter novel found at a Half Price in DC., one that had not been reprinted for years (possibly because of the casual racism in the story, which bothered me, but I could get past that). The history of cosmetics from the Elizabethan age to the First World War. The reproduction maps of Georgian London that I found in a corner of Foyle’s before they got all efficient, which they initially didn’t want to sell me because they couldn’t figure out how much to charge. The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush, which fell into my hands off the shelves of a bookstore in Charing Cross Road. The eighteenth-century Annual Register, pulled from a dusty stack of bound magazines in Hay-on-Wye, which I still treasure for the page on which it announces a general pardon for all felons except murderers, rapists, and people named MacGregor.
I don’t find books like that at Half Price any more, and I give the boxes of discards to my older daughter, who is willing to sell them for a price that allows her to pick up a couple of picture books for the kids. So… they’re still getting their books for resale, but they’ve lost a couple of avid if slightly insane customers. I expect they’re ok with that, but I miss the days of dusty book stacks and hidden treasures.