Thursday, August 13, 2020

'The Second-Hand Bookshop is Somehow Inessential'

Some dreams are best quashed. In hindsight they appear hopelessly misbegotten. In 1973 I was working for a restaurant in Bowling Green, Ohio, across the street from the state university campus. I was a cook and a BGSU dropout, and had invested a little money in the business (which still exists after almost half a century, run by one of the original owners). The wait staff included a husband-and-wife team, Phil and Robin Smith. Phil was a poet from New York City, and owned one of the largest collections of poetry volumes I had ever seen.

In late-night, dope-fueled “rap sessions” (yesterday’s defunct clich├ęs come back so easily), we resolved to open a bookstore. We both had a little money. We even came up with a name for our dream shop – Omega Books, later abbreviated to O Books! We reviewed our cash reserves, visited available locations, smoked some more dope and dropped the idea. Neither of us possessed the least business sense. In fact, the idea was so ridiculous it arouses no romantic sense of nostalgia. For once, I acted commonsensically.
I’ve never been a book collector, merely a reader who likes hunting for books and acquiring the ones he finds most essential. Over the years I bought a few books strictly as investments – Thomas Wolfe, William Gaddis, Jack Kerouac – knowing I could sell them quickly and make a tidy profit or trade them for books I actually wanted. A collector, in my understanding, buys books as investments or trophies. He may not even be much of a reader.

Almost half a century after the fact, the English writer Alexander Larman confirms the wisdom of dropping our bookstore idea. His assessment is realistically grim. In “The Demise of the Second-Hand Bookshop” he catalogs the “high rents, a lack of demand and a sense that, in 2020, the second-hand bookshop is somehow inessential,” and adds:

“Decades, even centuries, of history and tradition are disappearing because of market forces, and the pandemic that we are all suffering through has sped matters up. So, although I would offer two hearty cheers for the Oxfam bookshops, please try and visit your local book dealer, if you’re still lucky enough to have one. Otherwise, this most eccentric and likeable of trades shows every sign of being annihilated forever, save for the most rarefied of dealers, and this would be a great pity, especially if it were to take place more or less through carelessness, rather than design.”

Next, I will call John Dillman, owner of Kaboom Books here in Houston, and share a rather substantial wish list.


Richard Zuelch said...

Should you come to southern California, you should visit The Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood. It is a large shop and has existed for many years. I discovered it about 10 or 15 years ago when it got written up in the Los Angeles Times. It's wonderful.

It also has the required bookshop cats - two, in this case.

Thomas Parker said...

Also in L.A is The Last Bookstore, absolutely enormous, one of those bookstore where you feel justified in believing that you can find literally anything you're looking for.

mike zim said...

Memories and photos of old London shops.

Once, I opened a two volume copy of Tristram Shandy and realised it was an eighteenth century edition rebound in nineteenth century bindings, which accounted for the low price of eighteen pounds. Yet even this sum was beyond my means at the time. So I took the pair of volumes and concealed them at the back of the shelf hidden behind the other books and vowed to return.

More than six months later, I earned an advance for a piece of writing and – to my delight when I came back – I discovered the books were still there where I had hidden them. No question about the price was raised at the desk and I have those eighteenth century volumes of Tristram Shandy with me today. Copies of a favourite book, rendered more precious by the way I obtained them and now a souvenir of those dusty old secondhand bookshops that were once my landmarks to navigate around the city.

Joseph Keller said...

Phil is still a poet and is also an artist with a home and studio in our small town in Ct. Have met him a few times...great guy!