The Delicate Ecology of the Used Bookstore

You know, it's not easy rummaging through your trash. Ian Mathers takes a look at the secondhand bookseller's world from the inside.

I have never worked in a used bookstore, sadly, but for about a year now I have worked in a used CD store. Around the corner from my apartment is my favourite used bookstore in the world, and the one place I would work above all else: Macondo Books, here in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

"Favourite" here is not used to indicate best, although I mean no disrespect to Macondo. The place is small and cramped, but crammed with books, and most of all, familiar. I've been to great used bookstores elsewhere, in Toronto and New York and London, but none of them shelve books the same way Macondo does. Or arrange their excess stock on the floor in the same way, or (despite having a debit machine) figure out my totals on paper before printing up my receipt on a calculator.

Working in the used CD store means I don't have the opportunity or the money to drop by Macondo as often as I'd like, but every so often on my way downtown I make it in. (And find: William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Italo Calvino, The Nonexistent Knight and the Cloven Viscount, another copy of The Crying of Lot 49 after my sister lost the one I lent her -- don't get me wrong, I read a lot of crap too, but for some reason I never buy those books at Macondo.) The place transforms me. It moves a lot slower than my workplace, and despite the great air of tranquility, it takes me a few minutes each time I step through the door to forget about what a total pain in the ass it must be to work there.

Retail jobs, as most know, can be trying in any case. Spare a thought, then, for the poor soul working in a used store. I used to be a little baffled and intimidated by the way the staff (normally friendly) would get a bit huffy when someone, when I, would bring in a box of stuff to sell. But now I know! I'm not alone in adoring the cramped confines of the used bookstore and the surfeit of stock, not to mention the variety and history of what you can find within. But especially if you're a good, knowledgeable employee, it must make you want to pull your hair out when another yahoo comes in with a box full of stuff, 95 percent of which you can't do anything with but will still take up your time to go through.

In a Chapters or what have you, there is the word from above about what you will stock and how many copies of it you will stock, but the used bookstore employee must be a patient shepherd, guiding and shaping the flock, trying to ensure the place stays well-stocked enough to meet demand without buying a bunch of useless or redundant crap. And yet, at the same time, they want to buy, because without buying they have no stock. It's a difficult and annoying balancing act.

And it takes much time and effort, constant effort (worse, I would be willing to bet, than what I encountered when I worked in a public library throughout high school). Serving the customer is usually an enjoyable and predictable part of that work, but sorting through piles of Tom Clancy is not. You can see the employees perk up when someone brings something good in, but trust me, that's not as common as you'd think. And the people who bring in crap are often really unpleasant about it.

I blame, only half jokingly, video games. After all, if you kill a monster in World of Warcraft and he drops an item, you can generally get the appropriate store/kiosk/person to exchange it for a set price, instantly. It would seem obvious that the real world doesn't work like that, but you try telling someone that you only want one book out of a full box and will only pay $5 for it and see how they react. (Can they not see the piles of books on the floor? The full shelves? The use of every available inch? The very coziness of the place is why the store can't buy everything.)

So walking me into Macondo, through no fault of the store's, thrusts me back into eight-hour days of inspecting badly scratched CDs and water damaged DVD art, of patiently explaining to people that it's not whether I like Nickelback or not, it's that we have three copies already. Once I shake that off, I think my figurative peek into the back room has actually strengthened my love for a good used bookstore, by giving me a better sense of how delicate their existence is and the hassle people have to put up with to give us these oases.

They're like little groves with fragile ecosystems, assembled and nurtured by dedicated souls to give the rest of us places to spend a little quiet time. No used bookstores I've ever been to have been raucous, and I wouldn't want them to be. I just want the quiet companionship of employees and customers alike moving slowly, staring at the shelf, selecting volumes to inspect for one reason or another, that distinctive soft gasp when someone finally finds something they've been forever looking for.

I guess books are getting a little outmoded now; shamefully, I probably do most of my reading on a screen. But that only makes used bookstores more precious to me (as opposed to used record stores, which lately feels a lot like thriving off of the corpse of a once mighty animal), as more and more I don't want something shiny and new but something used, creased a little, dog-eared, loved. The staff at Macondo all seem to be lifers, and I can't picture someone sticking around in such a thankless job, especially one that must not feel very special most of the time, without a true affection for used bookstores and the experience they represent. If it's not customers treating your failure to have a particular volume as an objectionable expression of your personal taste and not, you know, how used stores of all kinds work, it's regulars presumptuously assuming privileges you'd never give them. I've always treated Macondo and other used bookstores with respect, but now it's something more akin to reverence; in a small, secular way, these are holy places.

If you doubt me, duck into your local equivalent of Macondo next time you're stressed out or grumpy and just try browsing for a little while; let yourself relax into it, and see what happens. And please, don't hassle the staff.

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