I almost hate to say this with all the ranting about gun control going on lately, but one of my favorite things to do is to kill time. We Americans are very adept at killing time with all our TV networks and video games and work days and whatnot; it’s almost as if we invented it. (As a parenthetical aside, killing time actually goes all the way back to the ancient Bedouin nomads who liked to mix it with a little lemon and put in on their chicken.)
My favorite way to kill time is at a used book store. Used book stores are the perfect place to combine the paltriness of my nominal adventurism with the gargantuan nature of my striking tightfistedness. Plus they are often quaint mom&pop shops that are competing with the giant mega super chain stores that put the retail mom&pops out of business. I like to support mom&pop. People should not pay full price for books any more than they should pay sticker price on a new car or take a blind date to a silent movie.
Perusing a used book store is an adventure because it’s like a hunt for buried treasure. This is perhaps why I enjoy it so, as it allows me to pretend I am a pirate and gives me an excuse to wear my eye patch somewhere other than a midnight showing of True Grit. I look at history books and philosophy books and travel and theology. I don’t look at fiction that much unless there is something specific I’m looking for that I can’t get at the library or on paperbackswap.com, an online book exchange that I love more than aspic. Libraries are great because they are a lot like used book stores but even cheaper. And their floors don’t creek. And they don’t smell like my grandma’s bedroom.
Eventually, I like to make my way to what I call the “Ann Coulter” section, known in the store as the “Clearance” area. These are the books that cannot be sold even at discounted prices and are marked lower than Piers Morgan’s ratings. Here is where you find titles like “Man-opause” or “New Revelations of the Bible” or “Lance Armstrong: American Hero.” You can occasionally find a treasure here, but your timing has to be right. After a while the books in this section are retitled “Charmin” and stacked in the restrooms for appropriate recycling.
The clearance section is also where you can find a sampling of defunct, 10-to-20-year-old trends in pop culture: stacks of Prayer of Jabez alongside The Last Lecture under The Purpose-Driven Life next to The Simple Solution to Rubik’s Cube. Interestingly, there are always a few copies of the What to Expect… series about childbirth and rearing in the clearance area that are still sold new at your retail chain stores for $14.95 but can be found on Amazon for $1.28 tax free, shipping included. Now, why did Border’s go out of business?
Another item I often find on clearance is books on how to write, written by writers I have never heard of before. Much like the canceling of Family Matters, this is one of the few things in this world that makes sense. These books should be in the clearance section. Who is going to buy a book on how to write novels by someone who has never written a successful novel? That’s like hiring someone to make capitalist economic policy who has never worked in the private sector.
Whenever I’m on the road I seek out a local used book store and kill some time in quest of that illusive jewel. And since the books are gained largely from the local citizenry, the stores often reflect the personality of their cities. For example, I often stop in City Lights Books in San Francisco while I’m waiting for a table at The Stinking Rose next door. They have a great selection of literature, but their political section is a teeny bit one-sided and their theology section is composed of The Women’s Bible and three books by Sam Harris. (City Lights has the added attraction of being the epicenter of an historic obscenity trial, which is always titillating.) Contrast that to Again Books in Rapid City, where you will find a veritable literary trove about our rich and storied history of genocide and a GLBT section that consists of Romans 1.
While these are not my favorites, the ones that follow are (be advised that I have received no compensation for the lynx provided in this piece, but if you happen to be affiliated feel free to throw me a bone):
Powell’s Books in Portland. This is hands down the best bookstore anywhere, and I say that not even knowing what is meant by the phrase, “hands down.” They have six locations around Portland including one in the airport that also includes exclusive airport prices. The best is the City of Books location downtown and is worth climbing over the homeless to get to. It covers multiple floors of an entire city block (1.6 acres of floor space) and the rooms are color-coded by topic. My favorite is Red.
Strand Book Store in New York City. Strand, located in the left ventricle of the heart of Manhattan, boasts “18 miles of books.” I’m not sure if that’s true, but I do know that if you laid them all end to end you have way too much free time. Started in 1927, Strand is the sole survivor of New York’s “Book Row,” a string of stores and publishing houses dating to the 1890s, but back then it was called ‘courting.’
Chamblin Bookmine in Jacksonville. With apologies to Seabiscuit, this is the dark horse of the group. Jacksonville? Indeed. Discovered completely by accident, I found Chamblin to be the Pamela Anderson of book stores: surprisingly stacked. They also sport a nice eatery and a very helpful staff, as opposed to Roy Scheider’s staph, which wasn’t helpful at all.
In case you missed it: