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Of Bookshops Past, Part One

January 29, 2012

Wayne writes: Once upon a time, my collection of books occupied only a few shelves, and most of them had been bought for me by a parent or relative. Then, sometime during high school, I started to buy books for myself. I had often borrowed books from the public library, but learned that there was a distinct pleasure to finding a book I wanted and being able to keep it. Although I never had much of an allowance, paperbacks were relatively cheap, average cost around fifty cents each, or less if bought used or through a school-sponsored reading plan. I began to look forward to bookshop visits. My memory of James Books on Ridge Road in Parma, Ohio (next door to my home town of Brooklyn) is of a very large room with rack upon rack of books. I remember buying some Ian Fleming novels there (the Signet paperbacks), as well as literary classics when college approached and I felt that I should read some of the books not covered in my high school English courses. I probably also found at James Books many of my earliest science fiction paperbacks.

Smith of Wootton Major Farmer Giles of Ham coverIn those days, it seemed as if almost every shop had racks of paperbacks for sale. I’ve often told how I bought my first copies of The Lord of the Rings partly in a hardware store and partly in a grocery store, and discovered The Hobbit in a pharmacy. The fire of bibliophilia had already been lit, but with Tolkien it flared up and I began to branch out: fantasy as well as science fiction, myths and legends, books about book-collecting and bibliography. I found the Ballantine Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham by Tolkien, and possibly The Tolkien Reader – and was delighted to discover something ‘new’ by my favorite author (c. 1970 I had no idea of his range) – in Schroeder’s Books on Public Square in Cleveland, while accompanying my mother on one of her visits there to buy British women’s magazines. Schroeder’s was a good source for overseas newspapers and periodicals, supplemented by some domestic paperbacks.

Puffin Nursery Rhymes coverAlso in Cleveland was Publix Book Mart. I had the misfortune to discover it late in its Prospect and East 9th incarnation, just when I was starting to pay close attention to bookshops. Publix had an extensive stock, new, used, and antiquarian, in fact more extensive than I knew. Painfully shy, I kept to familiar (and affordable) sections rather than explore every nook and cranny. It was at Publix that I discovered the Narnia books, in the Collier paperbacks (which mangle Pauline Baynes’s beautiful illustrations, but I knew no better). When Publix were forced out of their building in 1972, to make way for a parking garage, they had clearance sales both on-site and in one of the downtown department stores. Only afterward did I learn that Publix had, besides the ground-floor tables and shelves I knew, more stock in basement tunnels that ran under the street. Ever since, I’ve wondered what I missed by not knowing about those ‘catacombs’. Publix re-opened in Huron Road, in a smart, well-lit, more up-scale space which I visited a few times before moving to Massachusetts. By then I had a better idea of what to look for, and was searching for specific items, such as an annotated book of nursery rhymes (unaware of the Opies’ larger Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes for Oxford, I picked up their collection for Puffin, thereby acquiring still more illustrations by Pauline Baynes).

But the Cleveland bookshop I miss the most is Kay’s Books. Kay’s was in a seedy part of town, at Prospect and East 6th, though the environment of adult cinemas and streetwalkers (as I now read about it) seems not to have registered with me. Inside, Kay’s was a treasure cave. One reminiscence online calls it ‘a rust belt mutation of Borges’ Library of Babel’. Just inside the front door was a raised platform from which staff surveyed their domain and took customers’ money. Mrs. Kay herself was often there. Some writers on the Web remember her as crabby, and liable to raise the marked price of a book when it was brought to the cashier. I never had that experience, though once when I was looking at books on an upper shelf a clerk shouted ‘Young man! Young man!’ (I was around twenty) and warned me off handling what turned out to be (but was not marked as) excess stock.

Road Goes Ever On coverKay’s was a sprawling place. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of linear feet of shelves, in every possible location, defining narrow aisles. Books went up uncomfortably high even for a tall person, and so low that one had to crawl on the floor. Hardcover fantasy was down the aisle to the left of the cashier’s position: that was where I found the Ballantine Road Goes Ever On, which I chose over the Houghton Mifflin edition because I thought the blue binding (with the Barbara Remington Lord of the Rings mural inset) was prettier. Poetry and books about books, among other subjects, were on a mezzanine up stairs to the right. It was on the mezzanine that I learned to look not only at the books immediately visible on the shelves, but behind them, where there was often another row hidden away. Also it became apparent that some of the books shelved behind, and some of those on the bottom-most shelves, invisible unless one leaned down, had been priced long ago and so much cheaper than they might have been.

Another set of stairs led to a second floor, where Kay’s kept mass market paperbacks (I bought as many of the Bantam ‘Doc Savage’ series I could find), older juveniles such as the Tom Swift books, and magazines (though never the issue of Redbook with Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major). At least a third of the upper level, physically divided off, was devoted to men’s magazines and porn, which some have said (probably unfairly) was what kept Kay’s afloat.

Kay’s also had a basement, which I dared to visit a couple of times, only briefly. It wasn’t for staff only, though it felt as if it could be (the ‘young man’ episode made me wary), the ceiling was low, some of the shelves were collapsing, it was excessively warm, and the stock was dusty, to say the least. Now I wish I had spent more time there, and wonder what I missed. The only books I recall clearly being there, and which I regret having let go, were copies of John Buchan’s works in yellow dust-jackets, probably Hodder and Stoughton editions. I intended to try the basement again on a trip to Cleveland in the early eighties, but Kay’s had just closed, with the stock going to Powell’s Books of Portland and Chicago.

I should also mention one other resource for the young book-collector when I was still living in Brooklyn: library sales. Most of the public libraries had them, and I traveled around, even as far as Chagrin Falls. For a while, the Cleveland Public Library held a sale each month, apparently selling off books that didn’t circulate enough (these included many now scarce books about books), as well as volumes donated for the purpose. All sold at very low prices, usually under a dollar, and I bought a lot. It was at one of these sales that I picked up A Memory of Vermont by Margaret Hard, the story of her life with poet Walter Hard, Sr. and the Johnny Appleseed Bookshop in Manchester, Vermont. I was so attracted by her descriptions of Vermont and its atmosphere of civilized bookish culture that I decided that I wanted to work in a library in rural Vermont, or maybe in Massachusetts – and here I am.

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5 Comments
  1. David Doerr permalink
    January 29, 2012 8:33 pm

    I was reading Wayne’s report, and had intended to mention the bookstore in Portland, Oregon where I purchased my copy of THE J.R.R. TOLKIEN COMPANION AND GUIDE – READER’S GUIDE, that Wayne and Christina authored.
    That is the Powell Bookstore that Wayne mentions. It covers an entire city block, and is four or five stories high. In addition, another of their stores, for technical books, is located just across the street. Complete bookstore, no?! Then there is their warehouse, and their other store that is in the Portland area. The Tolkien collection is decent, and covers a number of shelves.

    Some time ago you mentioned that you purchased your ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA from a library. Last summer I purchased mine at a very good price, from the Saint Helens, Oregon public library. I found a number of other interesting books, at a really good price, there, too.

    Your READER’S GUIDE is very interesting. Thanks for bringing this great book to Tolkien’s readers!

    • January 30, 2012 8:37 am

      We’ve been to Powell’s in both Portland and Chicago. The main Portland store was impressive, and had a good Tolkien section, already years ago – this was the early nineties, when I was still working on the Tolkien bibliography. I spent maybe a half hour standing on a ladder, checking points in a shelf or more of different printings of The Tolkien Reader as well as other Ballantine editions. We bought a few books too! [Wayne]

  2. January 30, 2012 7:26 am

    When I studied in Gothenburg about 10 years ago there was still a plethora of antiquarian bookshops. Nowadays their number has at least halved (replaced by franchise shops and restaurants), and many just keep a warehouse and sell their books online.

  3. February 6, 2012 6:04 pm

    World-renowned Tolkien scholar Wayne Hammond was a Doc Savage fan? Excellent.

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