Tag Archives: old books

Bargain Basements, Backlists and All

Our bookstore now has a bargain basement. Considering that we’re a second-hand bookshop in the first place (heh heh) it’s pretty cheap.  From now on, the books on the floor under any bookshelf are $1.

I was talking with another bookstore owner, Ann at Over the Moon, in Crozet, VA, about the difference between a second-hand and new books shop. We agreed that for a new shop, books get a brief period of handselling, a window of advertising opportunity via publishers and publicists, and then, if they haven’t done their duty, syanara. Maybe a year, maybe two. In a second-hand book store, people come looking for things they liked twenty years ago, titles they want to own in hardback, or a cheap, low-investment airplane read.

Completely different approach. “Backlist” becomes “bargain classic.” It’s one of the things Jack and I love about running a read-it-again (or get a chance to read it for the first time, two generations later): offering people access.

It comes back to that flash-in-the-pan bright star versus the long, steady light of those who, if not quite classics, are telling human stories that are timeless enough to endure. Diane Johnson. E.L. Doctorow. Delderfield. Anne Rice, Anne McCaffrey, Larry McMurtry. James Michener.

Oh lordy, the Micheners. I still remember my dad’s comment: “Any novel that starts with the volcano that formed the island on which the main characters conduct their business might be called thorough.”

Although American/British/Irish literature classes in future centuries may or may not study every single one of these lads and ladettes, they are part of the eternal library of humanity. And people may not make movies or write theses about them all, but they’ve influenced the way people think, commented on the way society runs.

Old books never die; they just get tape on their covers and dust on their spines, and they go into the bargain basement. Where smart people find them, and their ideas and stories live again, and again, and again, interesting and enduring.

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Your Old Book is not *%#^%$ Valuable, OK?

People come into the shop on a fairly regular basis, clutching a single tome wrapped in plastic. They have the hopeful idea that this will purchase their retirement on a small private island.

Sorry, but here are the seven most common reasons we see on why your book might cover lunch at Applebee’s but no more:old books

7. It’s a paperback. Trust us on this one; by the time a paperback is old enough to be antique, it’s too battered to be pretty. Planned obsolescence in the binding glue, or something like that.

6. You have the book club edition. Jack and I got very excited in the early days, finding we had an old hardback of Laura Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement, which goes for $600 in a first edition. We had the sturdy, ubiquitous one instead. It’s like the difference between an Aston Martin and an MGB GT; both are pretty, both are cool, but only one is hard to find.

5. It has worm holes. Yes, even if the worm is dead, even if the cover still has its gilt lettering and hand-sewn edges intact, those holes aren’t adding character, they’re subtracting value. Ask any Science Fiction fan: worm holes are bad news.

4. It has Reader’s Digest in the title. Just stop it, ok? We don’t want to buy it and neither does anyone else on the planet.

3. Something has chewed the corners. Dog-eared, maybe; dog-chewed, nyet. And no, we don’t want to hear what got it, or how. Just leave quietly without touching anything. Thanks.

2. The author is still alive. I once mentioned to my agent Pamela, just before visiting her in NYC, that in the used business, a dead author’s work tends to be worth exponentially more than that of a live one. After a brief pause, she asked in honeyed tones, “Do you like Ferris wheels, dear?”

1. It’s part of an encyclopedia set. Unless it’s pre-1800s (we’ve seen one in six years) make a book angel out of it and be happy.

So your book is probably not valuable in terms of money, but let’s not forget it’s still a wisdom house, a snapshot of words between covers that–barring dogs and old glue–hold them in one place, and through time. It may not be worth money, but it’s still valuable. Enjoy it; display its pretty cover; read it, turning the pages gently (and possibly wearing gloves). It’s yours to discover.

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The Weight of Books

Yesterday our “Let’s Talk” group met for its monthly session in the bookstore. This is an open-invitation group that chooses a one-word topic, rotates moderator duties, and has a grand time dissecting the ideas involved.  Past topics have included evil, debt, karma, suffering, forgiveness, and–last night–ghosts.

Many tales were told of spirits returning, and as we shared stories, a theme emerged: that the returns we were speaking of were almost all benevolent, and that often even those of us (like me) who have never seen a ghost have felt presences, sensed weights or feelings that gave the impression of someone–a loved one or a stranger–being there.

That led us to the idea of a word I’m not sure I can spell: nefesh (that’s the phonetic version) the spirit that animates, the complete life of a being, in Hebrew. That word appears fairly often in the Bible, and more often than we might think in our lives, even if that’s not the term we used to define it.

The weight of being, the sense of someone’s presence, stays in their physical stuff, was what the group basically agreed. Call it memory projected by the bereaved, call it animation from beyond by the departed; just don’t dismiss it, because even those who have no truck with ghosts and goblins still have encounters with this nefesh thing when they enter a departed loved one’s room, pick up her hairbrush, smell his aftershave.

Could books be a prime example? People read book for all sorts of reasons: entertainment, information, enlightenment, to score points, to follow the crowd, to escape. Whatever the reason, does the reader leave a tiny piece of self behind in it? Not the jammy fingerprint at the top of the page or the grease spot from the burger–although we see plenty of those in the trade. I mean do people leave the weight of their presence behind when they read a book? Rather than your picking up a blank slate full of ideas for you to accept or reject as you choose, are you picking up (in a pre-loved volume) a little bit of the ethos the previous reader left? Does the book have a wisps and whiffs of what those who went before thought of it?

It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? I really had considered books as idea houses: take them or leave them, but what’s in here is written down, pinned like a butterfly for study rather than one to admire in flight. But what if, oh what if books that have been read twenty, thirty times by different people carried just the hint of what people thought about the ideas contained therein? Would the dissonance of conflicting ideas create white noise to rub out acceptance? Or previous approval aid the willing suspension of disbelief?

Sometimes, when I’m handling the few very old books we have in our shop, 1800s titles, the tome in my hands feels heavy with solemnity, a weight beyond paper and print. Perhaps it really is nefesh, a sense of all the people who have read it before, and left the breath of their thoughts on its pages.

Hmm……

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The Elder Library

Jack and I grouse about Gore Vidal. He’s become the poster child of books that aren’t moving anymore.

Occasionally someone wanders in and gets excited about our Danielle Steels. (We pay them 35 cents per book. :] ) But for the most part our rural shop fills quickly with the detritus of 1970s book clubs and the five-year-old passions of a reading public that’s not really on the grid.

Gore and his friends are just…. past it. And yet, they were hot items in their day, tickets to discussion groups and in crowds and even costume parties. Now, they’re slightly musty, fusty, freyed-jacket doyennes and dowager duchesses, all but sniveling on the shelves as they eye the bright shiny Lee Woodruff dust covers.

Ah, for the days of glory; we all miss them, don’t we?

But take heart, for a used books shop is not like the cruel fleshmarkets of retails bookstores and libraries–and I’ll just pause here to remind you that some of my best friends are bookstore owners, so don’t write me in a huff; tuck your tongue in your cheek and keep reading! No, used book shops are the hospices of the library world, where books go to finish with dignity what began with flashiness.

Nary a “six months or you’re out” deadline here. We still have a couple of books that we opened our shop with, six years ago. Now, since we don’t keep electronic inventory, it is possible that they’ve been bought and returned for credit two or three times in their post-high-life careers. Or they could just have sat there all this time, taking up shelf space that Tom Wolfe and Barbara Kingsolver would have left more quickly.

Yet this is the joy of a used books shop: nothing is ever over–not until the spine’s last piece of masking tape disintegrates, the cover is too grubby for human hands to contemplate, or the ideas in the book are so old, sad and sorry that to carry the book would be to connote something lower than the bottom shelf. Short of this, the shawl-draped books of yesterday sit, patiently waiting, for readers who remember and appreciate their glamor, their wisdom, their glory days.

It’s not unlike elders in America, is it? There’s an African proverb: when an old person dies, a library burns down. When faces wrinkle, hands shrivel and bodies shrink, do we dismiss the voices and the minds that still carry so much history, so much wisdom, so much insight into how we should live? How much do we miss when we judge a book by its well-worn cover?

Just askin’.

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Hi Ho the Glamorous (Bookstore Owner’s) Life

My friend Pamela read yesterday’s post about kittens overrunning the bookstore, and said, “Do you ever get stray books?”

Why, yes. Yes, we do. Friday afternoon a couple called to say they were renovating their basement and had “several” boxes of old books they wanted to donate to Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books and Internet Café. About 700 volumes total, they thought.

“Lovely!” I said, swallowing a gulp. “Come on down!” Then I hung up the phone and poured myself a stiff one. Dear Lord, don’t let them be more than 10% Readers Digest Condensed Books, I prayed, sipping.

Free stock sounds good when you’re first starting in the biz, but as the years roll by, you begin to understand that the amount of time spent sorting such gifts is…. hefty, while the amount of income from finding gems among the dross is ….. not. It’s like panning for word gold.

But really, that’s what running a bookstore is anyway: searching out the hidden treasures in books and people, and trying to match the right mind to the right idea at the right time. Size ’em up; pair ’em off. It may not be lucrative, but it’s rewarding.

It’s nice to have 700 more titles to add to the mix, but they must be sorted and shelved so the right minds can lay claim to them. So if you’ll excuse me, the blog has got to be short today, because that’s just the stack from the front room table. The side counters and a section of floor in the mystery room remain to clear. Check back tomorrow, when I’ll either be finished, or dead….. :] And come visit! There’s a great book in here for you, I feel sure.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book repair, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA