Don’t let the secondhand bookstores die

This is my second piece for Utopian Idiots, a great site you should check out here. 

By Jonathon Van Maren

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.


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