Over the weekend I made an extended pitstop at the Brattle Book Shop in downtown Boston. I was reminded once again how used bookstores have been a place of happy sanctuary to me, going back to my early adult years.
The Brattle, pictured above, is one of America’s oldest bookstores, and it’s one of my favorites. Inside, you’ll find two floors of used books and review copies, plus a top floor of rare books. Outside, at least when the weather is okay, you’ll find shelves and carts of discounted used books, marked at $5, $3, and $1. Lots of the $5 books are quality volumes that would be a boon to many a personal library, and there are plenty of great bargains among the $3 and $1 offerings as well.
The discounted books outside draw me in. The weekend stop, for example, started with a discovery from one of the $3 carts, The World of Charles Dickens (1997), a colorful, illustrated guide to Dickens’ works and times, by London popular historian and Victorian crime expert Martin Fido.
But then I went inside. Uh oh. Let’s just say that the books I found on adult education and on psychology ran up the bill to considerably beyond three dollars. They may have been real “bargains” as measured by their original prices, but they lightened my wallet nevertheless.
Especially with the decline of brick & mortar bookshops, I’m delighted and appreciative that Greater Boston still supports used bookstores. In addition to Brattle, Commonwealth Books, Raven Used Books, and the basement level of Harvard Book Store are among the stores that offer plenty of used book treasures.
Elsewhere in the U.S., the Strand in Manhattan, Powell’s in Chicago, and Moe’s in Berkeley are favorite haunts. (Not surprisingly, all are within close proximity of one or more major universities.) During a recent trip to New Orleans, I was delighted to find several used bookstores in the French Quarter. And on those fortunate occasions when I’ve traveled to England, I’ve always been on the lookout for used bookstores.
New York City’s used bookstores hold a special place in my heart. By the time I moved there, its famous “Book Row” on 4th Avenue was no more. But during my years in New York (1982-94), the Strand was a classic, creaky, and vast used bookshop. I visited regularly as a law student, and during my stretch as a perpetually broke Legal Aid lawyer, I would make pilgrimages there on paydays when I felt (very temporarily) flush. The Strand has done some upscale remodeling in recent years and now sells a lot of new titles along with its storehouse of used books. Nonetheless, it remains a standard stop during my New York visits.
Another favorite was the Barnes & Noble Annex on 5th Ave. and 18th Street, across the street from the original B&N flagship store (which recently closed). The Annex was a multi-floored wonder, full of remaindered and heavily discounted new titles and used books. B&N would shutter the Annex sometime after I moved to Boston. I recall that when I discovered it had closed, I felt like a small piece of my New York life was gone too.
Book sale in a tent
The origins of my enjoyment of rummaging through piles of used books trace back to the summer after my first year of college. I was spending the summer at home in northwest Indiana, and my mom had clipped from the Chicago Tribune a small notice about a big used book sale in Wilmette, Illinois.
Later I would learn that the book sale was an annual, week-long fundraising event organized by the Chicagoland chapter of the Brandeis University women’s committee. It was legendary among many bibliophiles across the country, some of whom would rent camping vehicles to drive there and load up on good books for the year.
Anyway, I did the 90-minute drive to check it out. When I arrived, I could scarcely believe my eyes. The sale — offering some 250,000 used books(!) — was held in a huge tent that covered a big stretch of a mall parking lot. I spent just about every bit of spare change I had to my name. I filled several bags of books, and a few days later I would return to buy even more. Though I felt too silly to call it as such, this marked for me the beginning of a personal library.
Apparently some form of this book sale survives to this day. Hopefully others are deriving the same pleasure of visiting it and loading up on great discoveries. Maybe, like me, it will fuel a lifelong devotion.