The Dust Test

by Erika Nanes

24 June 2008

Let's face it: the way that someone interacts with a used bookstore suggests some things about how he will interact in other, slightly more intimate venues... Erika Nanes judges her potential dates by the way they handle their secondhand books.

All of my best boyfriends have something in common: they like dust. They like the dust that lies on sagging, overstuffed shelves where Stendhal’s The Red and the Black squeezes up against James Patterson’s Roses are Red. They like the dust created by pages that disintegrate slowly, year after year, so that when the book that contains them is finally opened, they discharge that dust in tiny puffs. They like the particular kind of dust found in secondhand bookstores.

It was only by accident that I realized how important the dust test could be. I was on a second date with someone who seemed promising. Since we had an extra half hour before the beginning of the movie we planned to see, I suggested that we visit Cliff’s, a used bookstore fewer than two blocks from the theater. Mr. Promising looked slightly uncomfortable. “Oh, I don’t really like those places”, he said. “I like to be able to find what I want right away, without having to dig for it”.

Mr. Promising and I didn’t last long after that. But I had learned something important: you can tell a lot about someone by his attitude toward secondhand bookstores.

Some women evaluate men by their taste in books; I do it by their taste in bookstores. The secondhand bookstore is, after all, an entirely different animal from its shiny new book-selling kin. Crowded, badly ventilated (I’m talking to you, Strand), with floor plans that often seem deliberately designed to confuse the hapless readers wandering inside, the used bookstore does not appeal to those who prefer their pleasures easily won.

Which may be why I have loved them, dust and all, ever since the afternoon I walked into my first one. I was just old enough for my parents to let me hang out alone while they visited their lawyer down the street. I saw a sign saying “Bookstore-Café”, pushed open the door, and walked into a type of store I’d never encountered in my suburban, mall-dominated childhood. Later, I would learn that I had discovered Second Story Books, a secondhand bookstore in the Dupont Circle area of Washington, D.C. that is, fortunately, still in business. At the time, the name of the store barely registered with me, nor would I have cared if it had. I was busy noticing other things: the chairs where people were allowed to sit and read, the hand-lettered signs, the bookcases that were taller than any I’d ever seen before. Somehow, even then, I knew that my life would never be the same.

Nor, of course, would my taste in men. Gone were my days of mooning over middle school jocks. Instead, I planted my flag firmly in the camp of geek chic. Forget how well a guy dressed; if he carried a book, and especially a used, not-from-the-bestseller-list book, I was smitten. No surprise, then, that I fell for the great love of my college years when I spotted him reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. In return, I introduced him to the art of browsing in used bookstores. The first time I brought him to my favorite haunt, I couldn’t help but notice the way that he interacted with the books. Whenever one intrigued him, he would coax it lovingly from the shelf, cup it in his hands, run a finger over its cover, bend close to inhale its faintly musty smell. I still can’t imagine anything sexier.

And that, after all, is what the bookstore litmus test comes down to. Let’s face it: the way that someone interacts with a used bookstore suggests some things about how he will interact in other, slightly more intimate venues. Take the matter of the books themselves, for instance. Anyone can find a new book attractive. They’re clean and shiny. They’re printed on the latest acid-free paper. They possess no discernible scent. They’re Barbie, only in paperback.

But to find a used book attractive, you need to have broader tastes. You can’t cut all of your potential lovers from the same polyester-blend, mass-produced, off-the-rack cloth. You need to be willing to try on the cotton seersucker, the silk brocade, even the ever-so-slightly-cheesy velour. You need to be willing to shop at Goodwill as readily as you shop at Macy’s. Hell, you need to prefer shopping at Goodwill, where, in spite of the worn-down carpeting and makeshift dressing rooms, you can surprise yourself by falling in love with Bakelite brooches and Pucci scarves, things that you didn’t even know you liked until you spotted them.

The bookstore test can also answer the question of how well a potential boyfriend deals with order, or with its absence. Let’s face it, secondhand bookstores are not for everyone. In some bookstores of my acquaintance—Acres of Books, near Los Angeles, comes to mind—the books have spilled from the shelves and now take up residence in piles stacked on the floor, usually right in the turning ratio between one side of an aisle and the other. These encampments are not part of any section and demonstrate absolutely no observable order. Men who like their world neatly organized, who get flustered when their CDs are out of alphabetical order, won’t last long in such a place. Which is useful information, right? After all, sex—good sex—is nothing if not disorganized.

Mostly, the difference between new and used bookstores is the difference between shopping and browsing. Shopping holds no mystery: you enter the store with a mission, accomplish that mission, and leave. But browsing, like dating, is nothing but mystery. You never know what bargains will be available on any given day, what unexpected treasure you will find, or how that treasure might change your life. 

As for me, I think I know who I’m looking for. He likes road trips, genre-bending bands, and farmers’ markets. Of course, I’m entirely prepared to fall for someone who doesn’t meet any of those criteria. Just last week, I had a date with someone who never travels, listens only to classical music, and shops at Safeway. He got my attention, though, when he praised his neighborhood’s secondhand bookstore. We have a date to visit it next weekend, and I’ll be watching him closely. Who knows? It might be his day to get lucky.

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