In Praise of Indie and Used Bookstores: Kramerbooks, Idle Time Books, Bartleby’s

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(Two books from Kramerbooks & Afterwords, along with The Golden Age)

As the chain bookstores and, if we’re honest, the emerging popularity of e-books continue to put the squeeze on indie bookstores and used bookstores, it’s important to recognize what we’re in danger of losing. I was reminded of this issue when Ann and I recently explored Washington D.C. after the Capclave convention.

Whereas chain bookstores tend to be the same, with some variation, indies and used bookstores don’t just have their own personality—they have different books. Chain bookstores can include a lot of inventory, and they can stock some pretty esoteric things, but when we stepped into Kramerbooks, for example, I was immediately struck by the differences. One difference is in your face: what’s emphasized and what’s not emphasized. For example, the Europa Editions and NYRB Press titles pictured below were much easier to find at Kramerbooks than in the chain store we entered. Clearly, Kramerbooks valued these editions more. In the case of the two books about an Irish island pictured above, I don’t think the chain store even carried copies. In addition, Kramerbooks’ noir/mystery section was much more heavily slanted toward interesting stuff.

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In another section of town, the rather awesome Adams Morgan district, we spent a great half-hour in the used bookstore Idle Time Books. I’m fairly sure we wouldn’t have found the Hama Tuma just a shelf away from the book on Ruskin in a chain store, and I’m not even sure either book is still in print to be stocked by any new store. When talking about used books, the internet certainly helps track down stuff that’s out of print. But on the other hand, we didn’t go into Idle Time wanting to buy a book on Ruskin or a book by Hama Tuma. It’s the wonderful chance encounter that created the opportunity, and the eccentricities or organizing principle of the buyer there, combined with the vagaries of coincidence or fate that brought someone there to sell those books to Idle Time Books in the first place.

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Another used bookstore, Bartleby’s Books in Georgetown had a completely different feel, texture, approach. Bartleby’s had quite a good selection of antiquarian books as well as first edition fiction in fine condition. For example, a first edition of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles that I lusted after but ultimately put back in favor of two less expensive editions, pictured below. I had never heard of Vassilikos, and I’d never heard of this particular Kobo Abe novel. Even if browsing the internet, even with a sample to read, I don’t think I would’ve ordered the Vassilikos online. In fact, it took putting the book back down, picking it up again and reading in a different place, finding myself attracted to the sleekness of the design, putting it back down, and then picking it up for a final time and being convinced by a third passage…before I truly became the owner of that book. There was a similar period of acclimation to the Abe. Neither book is likely to be found in the chain bookstores, certainly both available online, yes, but only in the conjunction of our presence in that store on that day, having just read more of Gravity’s Rainbow that morning along with part of a thriller, and only in the presence of the book as physical object, did the elements come together in such a way that we now have both books.

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This isn’t a mystical process, but it is a cumulative one, and it’s not so much about fetishizing the physical object as it is about the search and the role of chance and the seeming role of fate (the sense of it being meant to encounter a particular book). Physical bookstores, of which indie bookstores and used bookstores are often the best examples, also remind us that a book is part of the physical world in away that ordering on the internet or downloading to an e-reader cannot. In other words, I want the whole experience of book buying, not just the clicking and the acquiring. I know, too, that the culmination of these experiences of chance and fate have consequences, influences, on not just my further reading but also on my own writing and other book projects. That by rolling the dice in this way, I’m allowing new things and new experiences to come my way.

In short, I want to be surprised, and not just by similar groupings of books created through an algorithm. I’d much rather be influenced by the uncertain and even eccentric or crackpot algorithm of the individual bookstore owner’s or manager’s mind. I’d rather enter a memory cathedral than a department store.

Call me old-fashioned, but don’t say there isn’t something wonderful about the full-on experience of buying a good or unusual book. Am I right, half-right, or wrong? And to what extent do you as a book-lover benefit from the used or indie bookstores in your area?

Comments

  1. says

    You’re absolutely right.

    I’m an undergrad at the University of Iowa (already known for being a pretty literary place, what with the Workshop and all that), and our big indie bookseller here is Prairie Lights Books. I’ve discovered quite a few fantastic books there that I wouldn’t have found by browsing online or at Borders, and the store regularly hosts readings from some pretty fantastic authors. (They also have a wine bar. Which is AWESOME.)

    Of course, there’s also something to be said for the sheer convenience of chain bookstores or Amazon, the latter especially if you’ve got a book in mind and can’t find it in stores. But I agree that there’s nothing quite like stumbling across unusual books that indie/used bookstores often carry.

  2. Caleb Wilson says

    I love indie and used bookstores both, and I only order things online when there’s no other choice. (And these days I can, in a pinch, order books straight from the library where I work, unless they’re not carried by Baker and Taylor — I’m looking at you, The Narrator!) I worked at bookstores (two indies, two used) for most of the last decade, and for a while I was afraid the magic of them was starting to go away for me, but then, visiting my family in Vermont, the main thing I wanted to do was go to Montpelier so I could visit all the awesome bookstores there, and I was like… it’s back… (Used bookstores are probably the bigger draw for me, both because what can be found in them is usually even more random and wonderful, and I can usually buy four or five books at a time without feeling like I’m spending too much money.)

  3. Claire says

    Sadly, many (college) libraries are going the same way — books are shuffled off to a distant warehouse to make room for coffee shops, computer labs, and comfy chairs to sit while browsing the web.

  4. jeff vandermeer says

    Yeah, Amazon is great for many things, but it’s firmly established as part of our shared book life. Indies and used bookstores seem to be in a more precarious position. Thus my emphasis. jv

  5. PhilRM says

    There is just nothing – nothing – like the experience of wandering around in an actual, brick-and-mortar bookstore and discovering a book that, until that moment, you had no idea that you had to have.

    In the Denver area we have the Tattered Cover, which is a long-standing independent institution, but sadly, it seems to be going downhill. They were forced to move from their original location a few years back and they don’t ever seem to have quite recovered. Their new (hardcover) fiction section is still very good, but a lot of what they carry now is generic stuff you can find anywhere, and a lot of things that you would hope to find in an independent bookstore (like Editions Europa or NYRB) are in very short supply. Their once-excellent history section is now almost non-existent.

    Kepler’s in Menlo Park, which briefly went out of business a few years back and was pretty much rescued by the community, is still wonderful, the sort of place that you can’t go into without coming out with at least half-a-dozen books, and find obscure things like Tobias Seamon’s brilliant “The Magician’s Study” (a book I could barely find for sale online, not even from its publisher – ironically, I had just ordered it from Powell’s when I came across 3 copies in Kepler’s). I’m still in mourning for Wordsworth in Cambridge, the Haunted Bookstore and The Bookmark in Tucson, all gone for years now. I got a terrible shock recently in Santa Fe, thinking that Collected Works was also gone, but fortunately they had just moved a couple of blocks to a new (larger! nicer!) location.

    My local Barnes and Noble is excellent; the science fiction/fantasy section is terrific, with lots of small press titles (like Tachyon and Subterranean). Maybe that’s the influence of Boulder. But it’s not City Lights.

  6. Juha T says

    One of the things I like best about Helsinki is the bookstores. I have three used bookstores within a two block radius.

    I totally agree with you about both the experience of “rolling the dice” in a bookshop and about how indie bookshops often reflect the personalities of their owners. A while back I was browsing through Arkadia International Bookshop and came accross an underpriced copy of Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes buried in the back shelves. When I asked the owner about it he said he loves how people unearth these little treasures in his shop. So now I have a book and a story to go with it. Whenever I go to Arkadia, I try check all the shelves to see what else he might have buried.

  7. Joe says

    What I find unique about the indie and used bookstores is that I tend to read more of the book while in the store. I do much of my book shopping on Amazon and I do a lot of clicking and way too much of reader review reading. Way to much because it’s really what I think of the book in the long run that matters and how can I know unless I read the words? In the used book shop (mine is WonderBooks in Frederick and Hagerstown, Maryland) I make up my own mind based on reading the book…as well as the cover, the feel, whether I have ever heard of the author, all sorts of things. In a word I ‘discover’ in the used book store….and I ‘shop’ at Amazon.

  8. says

    I also love Politics and Prose in DC! I heard there was something going on with that shop since I moved, but I hope it continues to serve the community. And in NYC, Idlewild Books is just lovely, not only for travel and travel-related books, but also great language classes. Thank you for this great posting!