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Of Bookshops Past, Part Two

January 31, 2012

Wayne writes: After visiting seven locations of Half-Price Books on our trip to the Midwest last summer, I began to feel nostalgic for the bookshops of my youth (see Part One of this essay) and for the many shops I visited in later years which have disappeared, at least as bricks-and-mortar destinations. I mean no disrespect to Half-Price Books: if there were one near Williamstown (the closest is in Pennsylvania), we would go there often, and gladly. Only once, I think, have we left a Half-Price Books empty-handed. But I find it hard to feel nostalgia for a franchise, each of whose shops looks very like another. If I have a choice, I prefer to browse stock that’s more idiosyncratic, leaning more towards the scholarly than the popular, the unusual rather than the mainstream, with a greater chance of finding interesting books I never knew existed – a harder proposition now, with a large personal library at hand, than it was when I was bookshopping in Cleveland. Browsing, preferably in a bookshop with individual character (and perhaps a cat), can give as much pleasure as the act of discovery; and this ‘thrill of the hunt’ is missing, or at least is not at all the same, when shopping for books through a catalogue or online, which has become the norm.

Mountain Meadow dust-jacketWhen I think about the shops where all of the qualities of book-hunting came together, the first that comes to mind is The Constant Reader, which was in East Irving Place in Milwaukee. Christina and I went there several times while in Milwaukee to see friends or study the Tolkien Papers at Marquette. The Constant Reader’s stock was varied, almost always in pleasing condition, and always reasonably priced. More than once, we had to be given a box to carry away our purchases. It was a dark day in 2004 when we learned that the shop had closed, a victim of high city taxes. Proprietor David Hurlbutt created an electronic presence on ABE, but lists on a computer screen are no substitute for being able to handle a physical book and allow its printing, paper, binding, or cover art to work its appeal.

I also particularly regret not being able to return to Arlington Books, a shop we discovered in eastern Massachusetts through one of the thick guides to secondhand bookshops in the U.S. we used to consult (and which websites, curiously, have never equaled). Although I can’t remember what we bought there, I know that we found a few good items, and I vividly recall walking through the front door, thinking that it was only a small shop, then discovering that it stretched back as far as the eye could see. There, too, the stock was general used books, not as consistently in good condition as at The Constant Reader but acceptable and fairly priced, while the size of the place suggested that almost any book might be waiting on its shelves. We made a note to return there on our next visit to the eastern end of the state, but the shop closed at that location not long after (I understand that it moved to Boston and merged with Commonwealth Books).

Cricket at the Seashore coverAnother vivid memory is of ABCD Books in Camden, Maine, run by Lillian Berliawsky. That was an old-fashioned shop with books tight on the shelves and stacked high on the floor. I went there once or twice with my parents while on vacation. On one visit, in addition to browsing generally I was looking especially for a book my mother remembered from her childhood and wanted to read again, called Cricket at the Seashore by Elizabeth Westyn Timlow, first published in 1896. I had been looking for it everywhere – and our readers must understand that this was before one could search for used books on the Web; by ‘looking’ I mean physically, in shops. There were so many books in Mrs. Berliawsky’s shop that it was hard to focus; but there, suddenly right in front of me, on the top of one of the piles of books, was Cricket at the Seashore. It was a very pleasing ‘eureka’ moment. Not so pleasing was the fact that while browsing I found a first American edition of Lord Dunsany’s King of Elfland’s Daughter, but put it back on the shelf as I felt it was too costly; then a few minutes later I changed my mind, but couldn’t find where the book had been!

Christina and I were talking this weekend about other good shops we knew which are now gone. Among the many booksellers once in Oxford, we preferred Waterfield’s as it was in its earlier and bigger location in Park End Street, but always visited its later incarnation in High Street, and we were fond of The Bookshop at the Plain and Artemis Books, both in Cowley Road on the far side of Magdalen Bridge. There were once quite a few booksellers in Milwaukee too, in addition to The Constant Reader, most of them now defunct. Some used book shops survive in neighboring Madison, Wisconsin, but we miss the old Avol’s, where we also sometimes filled a box. We were impressed by our one visit to William H. Allen in Philadelphia, picking up several volumes on English place-names, but Allen’s had closed by the time we planned another trip in that direction, and our hopes for a long browse in their shelves were dashed. There were never many bookshops of our sort (general secondhand, not antiquarian) in Manhattan by the time we came to be visiting there, though we found three or four, such as Academy Books on West 18th; only The Strand remains. New York’s new bookshops haven’t fared much better: we used to visit three good children’s book shops, two or three large general bookshops, and Forbidden Planet – most are no more, or their stars have dimmed.

When I was in library school in the mid-seventies, there were perhaps a dozen bookshops, supported by and supporting the community of readers and scholars around the University of Michigan. I would browse in David’s, Dawn Treader, others whose names now escape me (in one of which I found, didn’t pick up, and apparently lost to another buyer before I changed my mind and went back to look, an offprint of Tolkien’s Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics). Selection was good, prices were mostly cheap, if also mostly beyond my student’s budget. Even in later years, when Christina and I visited Ann Arbor, there were several worth browsing, but many have come and gone or are less good than they were. Even the Borders flagship store has gone along with the rest of that chain. We particularly regret the closing in 2005 of Books in General on South State Street, a walk-up with cramped quarters but a pleasingly varied selection of scholarly books in excellent condition.

It’s sad to think of the many bookshops we once knew that have now disappeared, due to high taxes, steep rents, expensive insurance, displacement by developers, retirement, or death. On the bright side, there are still used booksellers worth visiting, such as Robin Bledsoe and H.L. Mendelsohn near Harvard Square in Cambridge (Massachusetts), who have a good selection of books on art and architecture (and horses), and Sarah Key’s Haunted Bookshop in Cambridge (England), which we hope to visit again before long.

Images, from top: Upper jacket panel of Mountain Meadow by John Buchan (American edition of Sick Heart River), purchased from The Constant Reader; decorated binding of Cricket at the Seashore by Elizabeth Westyn Timlow, one of a series of three books about a mischievous girl, found by serendipity in ABCD Books.

  1. January 31, 2012 8:38 am

    I like your article! I wonder if as “normal” book shops keep closing due to competition from ebooks, a new golden era will start for secondhand book shops, as that’s where everyone would go to browse instead? I rather hope so, anyway…

    • February 1, 2012 10:52 pm

      Thanks, Josie. E-books probably are less to blame for the decline in new bookshops than competition online and an economy which makes shops expensive to run. These factors tend to work against secondhand booksellers too. It appears, however, that as e-books have multiplied, there has been an increase in interest in used books: call it nostalgia, or just say that human beings like to hold things in their hands, they respond to organic materials like paper and cloth more than to plastic, and they know, if only intuitively, that there’s an inherent impermanence to electronic texts and images relative to the physical object (see here).

      Re your own blog: Is that Farnham, Surrey you’re referring to? We’ve had some nice meals in Farnham, and our friend Pauline Baynes lived in nearby Dockenfield.

  2. David Doerr permalink
    January 31, 2012 11:48 am

    You will want to check out Spivey’s Bookstore in Kansas City, Missouri. Search for their web site on the Internet.

  3. Gerry Blair permalink
    February 1, 2012 7:27 am

    Here in Vermont I like the Monroe Street Books shop. I got a very nice copy of J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator there, as well as several other very nice Tolkien works.

    • February 1, 2012 10:52 pm

      Thanks, we’ll give Monroe Street Books a try sometime – maybe a weekend trip into Vermont. We’re about two and a half hours from Middlebury. Generally our farthest north is Manchester for a day out and back. The Johnny Appleseed Bookstore in Manchester Center, gone now, was a favourite stop for Wayne when he moved to New England, and we had a good time at the book fair that used to be held at the Equinox Hotel next door. There was also a small secondhand book shop on one of the back streets in Manchester which we visited once and found some nice things (Christina spotted a rare, and quite underpriced, little book for Wayne’s Arthur Ransome collection), but it had closed by our next visit. Wayne also has a fond memory of visiting Vermont Books in Middlebury a very long time ago; they’re still there although under different ownership.

  4. David Doerr permalink
    February 1, 2012 5:53 pm

    A “yreka!” moment happened, according to Mark Twain, when someone approached a settlement from the backside of a sign on a sheet that was meant to read “bakery”. Perhaps I don’t remember the particulars exactly. That is, however, the gist of the tale.

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