Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Ecstasy of Used Book Stores or Vintage Dust

The age of the Internet has brought countless benefits, including almost instant access to facts and efficient comparison shopping, to name a few.  Alas, change does have its price.  I fear that due to the Internet, the classic used book store with its sights and smells will disappear, as did manual typewriter.

As a bookworm from a family of bookworms, I have always preferred a used book store to a library.  There is a sense of adventure that the Dewey decimal system used by public libraries seems to destroy.  Also, a treasure found there is by definition a shared one, not a private one as when you find that special book buried under 18 other books in a dusty stack in the back of the store.  Only you had the patience and perseverance to remove those other books to find that pearl of a volume, however you wish to define that.

American used book bookstores, especially in college towns, tend to be colored by the national insistence of order and profit making.  The shelves are arranged nicely in alphabetical order by writer in sections having some internal logic.  This desire to facilitate the buying experience has been taken even farther by modern used book stores, such as Powell’s in Portland, Oregon (where I worked), where coffee and pastry are available to render your decision making process even more pleasant.  That the customers are being manipulated to buy books does not make the purchase of books any less desirable, of course.

By contrast, the used book stores in Paris represent the polar opposite. The vast majority are small shops.  Any shelves that may have been installed are hidden by random piles of dust-covered books.   The organization and price seem to be random, with books on widely varying topics lying on top of each other marked by arbitrary prices for better or worse.  Some stores claim to have a specialty, such as modern art or the Far East, in which case the seller might actually know which books s/he has.  Most are manned by passive looking people who seem to be there more because they don’t want to sit around the house than for any desire to make money.  Your decision to buy or just look does not seem to affect their mood at all.  This complete lack of commercial pushiness renders the search through Paris for first-edition Simenon novels all the more pleasurable.

I regret the future disappearance of this passion, which will go the way of letter writing and flower pressing.  In the meantime, I plan to partake of this pleasure when I have the rare luxury of taking an endless walk for no purpose other than to discover what magic book is buried deep in a pile of dust.

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