As a kindergartener I often sought refuge just outside the classroom door. There I pressed myself against the hulking blue milk machine, with its cool, comforting hum, thinking myself hidden from my rambunctious classmates and gentle teacher.
Were I that child today, I would be labeled, medicated, placed in a special classroom. But in 1971 I was fortunate, waved off as a solitary child, a four-year-old bookworm already in glasses.
Being short of cash meant I frequented libraries, paging through their contents, eagerly scanning the new arrival shelves. But as I grew older and more idiosyncratic, I began feeding my reading habit at used bookstores. In my teens and 20s I spent untold hours amidst the fiction section, where there was always the risk of a purchasing error: a bad book, a silly book, one the bookstore would refuse to take back for credit. I weighed, juggled, decided. Most often my choices were pleasing. Sometimes they were exalting: Kathryn Harrison’s Exposure, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, Robert Hellenga’s The Fall of a Sparrow. A.S. Byatt, Laurie Colwin, Andre Dubus (father and son), Barbara Kingsolver.
Even now, 40 and financially solvent, I shop exclusively at used bookshops. They are the dealers feeding my insatiable habit, my need to have Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm right now, to acquire a copy of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters because Francine Prose and Jonathan Franzen say so.
I do not shop at chain bookstores or order online from that monolith farming its customer service to India. You know who I mean. This is both a highfalutin moral choice and a necessity. A chain store will not carry Desperate Characters. The salespeople earning minimum wage, here or offshore, likely haven’t heard of Paula Fox, or know her only in a Courtney context (Fox is Courtney Love’s grandmother). Chain bookstores might carry one paperback of The Corrections, because of the Oprah flap, but rarely any Francine Prose. There will be shelves of romance novels, diet screeds, Jesus books, get-rich-quick manuals. These are no more books than frozen dinners are food.
I do not want books about impossible romantic love, wealth, lifelong slenderness, or God. I want Harry Mulisch’s The Women, Susan Straight’s Aquaboogie, my crumbling copy of Peyton Place, with its simple black cover. No acknowledgements or Chip Kidd jacket designs here. I want the character only used books have; their pages worn thin as onionskin, battered, annotated. Here is my copy of Madeleine Kamman’s In Madeleine’s Kitchen, inscribed:
Hopefully these recipes will bring back delectable memories from your travels abroad, love Deanna and Jonathan.
Blue ballpoint ink, obviously written by Deanna, doubtless the daughter-in-law. Evidently the memories were insufficiently delectable, for the book was waiting for me, a steal at $5.98.
Written on the flyleaf of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life:
August 1989—For Joan—With so much love and thanks—you are a rare and vital friend—Mary.
But Joan didn’t keep the book. What happened? Perhaps Joan died, or found the writing life impossible. Perhaps she came to despise Mary.
When I picked up Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, a sheaf of snapshots fell out, family photographs of total strangers. They’re still tucked in the book. It seems wrong to throw them away.
My battered first edition of The Moosewood Cookbook offers running commentary, penciled in by the original owner, usually only “sounds good,” but on 18 October 1982, she prepared cream of celery soup:
very good didn’t have celery seed & used sour cream try heavy cream next time
But six days later, cream of spinach soup didn’t fare so well:
10/24/82: fair—not such positive reaction as warrants making it again
Oh, new books have their pleasures. The uncracked spine, that Chip Kidd design, the author beautified in a portrait by Marion Ettlinger or Brigitte Lacombe. But they are so breathtakingly expensive, like gasoline. And they will not tell you the cauliflower cheese pie was “very good better the next day”. Nor will you find a new paperback called Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, translated before the hit film and the smoothing hand of translator Tina Nunnally. My 1950 edition of Madame Bovary contains line illustrations and, in lieu of a dustcover, a protective box. Fourteen bucks. My 1937 Marie Curie has no dust jacket, but carries the inscription “To Mom—with love—1939.” Six dollars. Six dollars for a book predating Israel, Iraq, the fool in the White House, television. The recipient is probably dead now. The giver, too.
I want these books, I need them to feel marginally human, and I can only get them in used bookstores, where the thick smell of paper commingles with dust and endless pages of nine-point font that make me squint though my trifocals.
I need used bookstores to pull me back from the edges, from where I reside, out on the furthest ends of the lonely long tail, geeky, still solitary. Only in used bookstores am I among my kind, people irresolutely stuck on prose, people who, like me, willingly navigate the Internet or try their own hands at novels, tapping, as I am this minute, into laptops smaller than magazines. People who return, with relief, to the calming sight of shelves and shelves of books, that soothing paper scent. We are as junkies amid a field of opium poppies, hopping amongst the blooms, Molly or otherwise.
Salespeople are critical to the used bookstore experience. I stopped patronizing a famous Bay Area shop over the snotty help. The place I frequent now is filled with fellow bibliophiles. Once I found a hardback copy of Lydia Davis’s Samuel Johnson is Indignant. I carried my quarry to the counter triumphantly, where the salesman sighed dreamily. “Ah, Lydia. Lydia, Lydia, Lydia.” We talked about The End of the Story the way other people discuss Salma Hayek. Just last Sunday I was in a used bookstore, where the saleswoman told me she’d given up on writing fiction. I begged her to read the new Jhumpa Lahiri. “It gave me hope,” I said.
“I feel desperate,” she admitted. “I’ll never be that good.”
“Most of us won’t,” I said. “Instead, we view Lahiri as rare, a gift, like Atwood, and do the best we can.”
She smiled. “That’s a great way to think about it.”
This conversation would never take place in Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, or Target, where the top 10 are heavily discounted and shoved amidst those horrible soup books.
Thirty-six years and two thousand miles from the milk machine, I have learned barely, to pass as a normal person. Sort of. But when the veneer wears thin, I know where to go. After a difficult workday this week, instead of going home and making dinner, I drove to my favorite used bookshop. I paged through Ann Enright and hunted fruitlessly for Barbara Pym, reeling my soul back in. I found a biography of Joyce Carol Oates. At the checkout, a boy who has chosen to be a girl joked with me about the new Marge Piercy book. She said working there was bankrupting her. She was exactly who she needed to be, where she needed to be. So was I. I paid for my purchases and reluctantly departed.