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The Permanence of Loss: Used Bookstores for Sale

It's been a while since I've sat myself down for a good long bitch session, so today's rant is about something truly terrifying: the disappearance of the used bookshop in America. I realize that as we get older we all have to accept the falling away of people, institutions and ways of life that we held dear in our younger years. Some of this change can be welcomed, embraced even. But the kind of change that comes about through ignorance, apathy and a misplaced faith in the unwavering correctness of progress is to be shunned at all costs, as the vampire shrinks from the dawn. This country is quickly losing something great that it may never be able to reclaim, and no one seems to give a damn.

But wait, I hear you shriek, there's Amazon, and their much-hyped Kindle! There's eBay and the library! What do we need with used bookstores? Hell, we've just about outgrown brick-and-mortar bookstores that sell new merchandise! What do we need with their profit-less cousins? Anyone who's whittled away countless joy-filled hours inhaling the special dust of used bookstores can sit back and laugh at the very notion of raising the above questions. The rest of you will need to pay close attention.

It may not have occured to you before, but used bookstores are able to do certain things for which there simply is no alternative. Libraries may come closest to approximating the lovely randomness of discovery that takes place in the basements and balconies of independent bookstores, for instance, but their collections are arranged for different purposes, and they have a different brand of charm altogether. Only in our local, dog-eared word shops can we truly understand the nature of book browsing.

It goes something like this. You walk in looking for Douglas Winter's biography of Clive Barker, but before you can locate a copy, your gaze lands upon a mass-market paperback edition of "Godbody," by Theodore Sturgeon, whom you've read so much about but whose prose you've never experienced firsthand. Your life has just changed course. Or maybe you enter with a vague craving for a Dean Koontz thriller, only to find yourself drawn to a well-thumbed novel by some guy named Joe R. Lansdale. There's no hurry. The bookseller is the one running the cash register, and she doesn't care how long you stay. Have a seat. Do some reading. Three hours later, you walk out of there with seven books under your arm, and you've dropped the eye-popping sum of $17.82 for the privilege. Not bad.

There are, of course, your favorite authors, whose work you never fail to seek out as soon as it's released. These are the books you're always willing to pay for new, because you just can't wait for your number to come up on the hold list at the library, or maybe you're a collector. Otherwise, you should use your library greedily for anything you're able to find there and the Internet for those especially hard-to-find titles. For the rest—and for the ambience—there's used bookstores.

Well, there used to be. I don't exactly live in the middle of nowhere, and I've been watching independent bookstores (not to mention independent coffee shops, independent restaurants and independent grocery stores) curl up like cellophane in a hot wind. I was especially fond of one in particular, and its demise left my neighborhood without a bookstore of any kind. It also happened to be where my writing group met twice a month for more than a year. It was called the Cat and Cannon, named after the proprietor's children. She entrusted me with a key to the place, for those evenings when the group was too full of talk to make it out the door by closing time. Try getting that kind of treatment from a Barnes & Noble or a Borders.

Thankfully I'm still walking distance from my library branch. Now, when the libraries close ... That's a horror story I don't want to contemplate.—Pete Mesling

Posted by Pete on April 6, 2008 4:15 PM
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