March 2010

Micah McCrary


A Lust for Lit: On the Romance and Appeal of the Used Book

This book is my bible. I hope it inspires you in some way as well. Mandi 12/06.”  This is what's written on the inside cover of a book titled Off The Map, authored by Hib Chickena and Kika Kat. I'm standing in the narrow aisles of Chicago's Myopic Bookstore in Wicker Park, surrounded by a cluttered collection of books sitting on an ultra-sturdy set of shelves. When I take the book from the shelf and open the inside cover, this inscription is what I find. Within moments, I decide that I'm going to purchase it.

And every summer, a flock of book lovers storms tents and tables of Chicago's annual Printer's row Lit Fest looking to buy dusty and worn books on sale, most of them probably containing little notes like the one I found in Off The Map.

I think of how this thin but heavy collection of pages was important enough to someone for them to call it their bible. Their little note symbolized a hope that the book might have the same magical effect on the person picking it up as it did on the original owner. It implies that books -- more specifically used books -- have stories to tell that books from chain bookstores simply can't. They have history and personality, which is exactly what readers are hoping to find in the first place when they take a book off the shelf.

William Fieldler, owner of the Gallery Bookstore on the North Side of Chicago, mentions to me that the phenomenon of the used book isn't anything new, even in the dawn of a new information age. “The question is: are books going to make the leap into the information age, successfully?” he says. “Will books actually have a shorter lifespan than the paper scroll? I mean, after all, books are only 500 years old, right?”

“Well, yeah,” I say, “but do you think that some of the magic of reading an actual book might be taken away with things like the Amazon Kindle or the Borders Reader?”

He pauses. “Whenever you talk about electronic devices that reproduce items formerly known as books, it's not taking away any magic, because it's what people are used to,” he says to me. “When you have a whole class of kids in the younger generation they'll say, and just bear with me here, 'Oh, you remember my Kindle 2.0 from kindergarten?' Many people consider it a struggle to read.”

Though what Fieldler had said may contain a grain of truth, it only explains a part of the mystery. Why do people, especially in these times, like to buy used books over new ones? Is it price? People do tend to pinch pennies when in the middle of a recession.

Fred Bass, owner of the Strand Book Store on Broadway and 12th Street in New York, has his own opinion on why people prefer to purchase used books, stating that price is only a part of it (Strand themselves sell used books between 50 and 90 percent off the list price). “Secondly,” he adds, “because the books are very often not available at new bookstores; the only place you can buy them is at a used bookstore -- such as the Strand. Also, there are those customers who enjoy thinking about the readers who held the same book before them -- that the book had been loved by someone else.”

Dan Weinstein of the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood has a much different opinion: it's all economy. “As opposed to [buying books in] a new bookstore, it's oftentimes cheaper, that's probably the main reason,” he says. “The romance doesn't generally kick in unless it's an older book or a collector's edition. New books only have a shelf life of about six months, and if they don't sell within six months they'll leave the store. They'll live forever in a used bookstore.”

So there's antiquity. People have always enjoyed the idea of their art outliving them, and it might be a driving force behind getting a book from a used bookstore just to take a guess at how long it's been circulating -- when it was first placed on the shelf at a chain store and then was picked up by one person and possibly passed onto another person and then another. There's always a guessing game to a used book, always an enigmatic air around its lifespan.

And what about running the used bookstore? I wonder, thinking of all the vendors at the Lit Fest who sold their books with passion and fervor. Could there be any inherent benefit to running a store full of sometimes cluttered and disorganized shelves of old, smelly books? 

“Very exciting thing,” Mr. Bass in New York tells me. “We're on a treasure hunt every day. We never know what the next lot of books is going to bring or what goodies will come into the store. A number of years ago, someone walked in off the street and sold us a first edition copy of Ulysses, signed by James Joyce. Another time, someone came in with a Second Folio of Shakespeare.” It sounds like pretty great business all around: “goodies” are gained by all parties involved in the buying and selling of used books, and no one goes home empty-handed at the end of the day -- the store owners get a treasure hunt with every box or bag that's brought into the store and pocket a little bit of cash, while readers get to keep their wallets on a diet during a time of economic strife.

Ryan Jackson of Powell's Books in Hyde Park, Chicago, says that he thinks used bookstores are just plain different, and that's why people like them. “Sure there's price, there's a different sort of selection -- a lot of new bookstores now are larger chain bookstores and don't carry that large of a depth of backlist,” Jackson says. He adds that he would rather work at a used bookstore than a new one, as well. “I sleep well at night running a used bookstore,” he continues. “I'm providing something and helping people find things they never knew existed. In the larger scheme you're working in a part of a capitalistic educational system; you are selling things to people that they're going to read and enjoy. In a used bookstore, your customer tends to be more of an avid reader and not just, you know, someone looking for the newest book from Oprah.” And that's not to knock Oprah -- after all, some of the books in her club are not just bestsellers, but modern classics that'll be cherished for generations.

Is it merely the selection of books that gets people into stores like Powell's and The Strand and The Iliad, though? While price is certainly a factor, what about the smell and feel of the book? What about the fact that its pages have been previously turned or folded or torn or written in? The idea that a book may have lived in more places than its current owner is a literary turn-on, and it's a big reason to buy a book secondhand.

There are, though, definitely advantages to buying a book new. Both new and used books provide us information that we retain and hope to pass along, and the lifespan of the book sometimes has absolutely nothing to do with what we take away from it. “What's the advantage of reading?” Fieldler asks me. “What's the advantage of knowledge? What's the advantage of entertainment? Books are a vehicle for a number of different personal occupations or personal time-passing. Could be education or entertainment or how to fix something, you know, very practical. It's not just knowledge and poetry. Entertainment's a big part of it.” And it's true. Through books people learn to sew and fix sinks and play the piano, and books like those in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series have become cultural and historical icons -- everyone who's followed them dearly can remember braving the late nights waiting in long lines for the release of sequel after sequel after sequel. It's not all about the vernacular of Flaubert or the imagery of Mark Twain, but the fact that people read to enrich both their minds and their imaginations. Larger chain bookstores are not the enemy, and it's as Fieldler says: “Every book that walks out of there becomes a used book.”

In tracking down a final answer to the debate between buying books new or used, I managed to get a word in with the Chicago Tribune's cultural critic Julia Keller. She tells me that regardless of economical states, we're unfortunately going to be attracted to fresh and shiny and new things -- it's a part of our humanity. “Used books, though,” she says, “have a special mystery swirling around them: the mystery over who has read them before, and why. For me, a used book is a sort of launching pad for romantic speculations about the book's past. Marginal notes are like clues in a detective story: Who went here first? What were they thinking about? What was going on in their lives? And the book itself -- where has it been? One can imagine strange ports of call and mad adventures.” 

And she's completely right. There is a magic to a used book. A certain appeal. It's about history. It's about character. It's about finding a book on the shelf that tells a story of its own outside of the printed pages within it. After all, whether it's new or used, it's the story that we buy the book for in the first place. “I think we love both,” Keller adds, “the new and the old. New books are invigorating, but old books -- used books -- are complicated and mysterious and compelling.”