Caretaking the Eternal Library of Humanity

My friend Anita out in Kansas is looking to relocate the bookshop she manages, Al’s Old and New Books. She has discovered that some people think used bookshops are…. downmarket, while others prefer the term “passe.”


Jack and I have often commented that we oversee a library of ever-changing leftovers, some of which have mass appeal, some of which have esoteric appeal. But the reason we like what we do is that we’re not full of the latest bestseller, face outward on the aisle so mega-shoppers walking to the mall can be enticed by “Oh, I heard about that on Twitter!” impulse moments.

We have the long-term, hardcore stuff. The 1970s classics on Marxism, the Leif Ungers and Robert Fords and Lisa Changes. People who write well but disappeared into the well of marketing madness with nary a splash. My agent Pamela and I were talking one day about the “nebulous” position of used book stores in the publishing world. “After all, NYC doesn’t make any money from them,” she said, but then added, “but we all benefit from them. You are the caretakers of humanity’s eternal library, aren’t you? Like a benevolent dragon trying to get the gold horde out there instead of sit on it.”

Used book stores are the place where the sounds of silence outweigh the shrieks of hawkers telling you why THIS BOOK is the Next Great Thing. You can look for yourself–and thus see for yourself–in a used books shop. In a society that equates old with “has been” rather than “wisdom,” used books shops are a place for those who know when not to swallow a line.

We love running one. And this week, we’ve sold an amazing number of  what from a mainstream point of view would be “nobody’s gonna buy these” books. We sold about 20 volumes of philosophy. No, really, PHILOSOPHY! Mostly 1960s textbooks and treatises.

We sold a great wheen of French novels, both translated and in the original language. And we sold a set of plays written in the 1700s. A cheap, simple copy for someone who wanted to look at their structure. $3.20 and out the door she went.

This is part of why used book shops matter. It’s nice to have big well-lit shops with the bestsellers in them at full retail, but it’s also nice to have a dowdy little community center where you can think for yourself. That, and the $1.50 cuppa and the comfy couches and the cat option and the fact that if you come in and say, “Oh crap, I left my wallet at home,” we will say, “Fine, we’ll write it in the ledger and you can pay us next time you come.” And the customer, who only gets down from Ohio four times a year, stares at you like you’ve gone mad, and comes back two months later and pays up.

This is why it’s important for us to be here. Downmarket, my arse. Up the caretakers of the eternal library of humanity!

13 thoughts on “Caretaking the Eternal Library of Humanity

  1. Yea and Amen! My world (and everybody else’s) would be a sadder place without your delightful bookstore and others like you. May all the Little Bookstores of Down Home America thrive with flags flying and hearts finding rest and contentment as they sigh over their book-finds and the little felines! (I hope to be down there again in August and do hope the little grey guy in the Mystery room will still be there. He loved my red sneakers!

  2. Hi Wendy – I have managed our local literary foundation’s used book store for 10 years now. It was begun in 1992 to support our local Library and handle its discards. We have a Facebook page (The Book Nook, Estacada, Oregon) and I would love to share this article on that page. May I? Thank you – Linda Arnett, Estacada, Oregon

  3. Hey! I resemble those remarks. Yep, all of ’em. Some days I think I have the best of both world; used books, new and bestseller books, in the mall, on the aisle, 150 year old copies, rebinding, those philosophy textbooks, Marx etc., loads of poetry, some used classics for $2.95, etc., etc., until it comes to payday. Payday?, what is that? Another dinosaur livin’ the dream.

  4. Oh, how I wish you lived down the street! I am getting rid of books, facing move to simpler quarters. I have authors you never heard of (and should have, including mylself) and am also addicted to picking up more. For me, the once a year book sales at local libraries are a treasure, both to donate to and to buiy from. Younever get ahead that way.

  5. This is especially so in areas where public libraries have moved to the “marketing to customers” model of operation. I very often head first to my favorite used bookstore when I want to (re)read something with ink that has dried.

  6. Beautifully, beautifully written and really packing a statement today! Of course every time I read this blog I want to throw my stuff into a bag, drive all day and night and move in with you, because your whole enterprise sounds like Heaven. I get so jealous over all your activities, knowing I can’t participate, and believe me, there is nothing around here or anywhere near to compare. N O T H I N G . Love your book, love the blog. Please don’t stop!

  7. I wish everyone who walked into my store looking for the newest, newest, newest title would read this and understand why it’s very possible I may not be there one of these days if they can’t consider an older title which just may be the best book they’ve ever read if they give it a chance.
    You said what I think on a daily basis Wendy. Thank you!

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