The Lost Joy of Used Bookstores

I can’t complain about Amazon, not when I buy everything from them. A few years ago, I was shopping for a new car, doing some research online, when a UPS truck pulled up outside our house and my partner asked me (only semi-jokingly) if it was Amazon delivering me one. If I could car shop on Amazon, I definitely would. So I have no one to blame but myself for the fact that I no longer spend hours lost inside used bookstores the way I used to.

There was one in particular I loved called The Book Exchange. The building it occupied had been a house at one point. Two stories high with rooms of all dimensions, big ones and small ones and little nooks that used to be closets, all opening out from each other without any discernible plan, so you were never sure you’d seen them all. Each room held books. Books and nothing but books. No two bookcases matched, the signs were all hand-lettered, and no attempt had been made at alphabetization.

You don’t go to a used bookstore with the expectation of finding what you’re looking for. You go to find out what you’re looking for. I’d end up kneeling in front of a bookcase wedged between two windows paging through a coffee table book on geological formations or a scholastic treatise on Roman counter-culture with no idea how I’d landed there. I never walked out with fewer books than I could carry, all in a hodgepodge of genres.

One day I went to The Book Exchange for my regular Sunday afternoon entertainment and found it gone. A sign directed me to its new location, another ten miles away and now housed in a boxy strip mall. The drive was longer, the charm was gone, and by then Amazon was already providing the majority of the books I read.

The Book Exchange may still be there, but I haven’t been in years. I’d like to say I’ll be back, but the truth is I can’t even read on paper anymore. What is that stuff? The print is small and dark, and the device is heavy and requires two hands. But the lack of bookstores, and specifically used bookstores, in my life means there’s no browsing in my buying anymore. I see a promo and click on it. Amazon serves me an ad and I bite. A friend recs a book and I search it out. I see a sale and I jump.

I read a lot of good books this way, but there’s no sense of discovery, no possibility of being completely surprised by whatever happens to catch my eye from the next shelf over. Future generations may never have the experience of just picking something up and diving into it. So I mourn the passing of used bookstores while bearing some of the responsibility for their death.

In Better Off, I tried to recapture the magic of the used bookstore. Hailey’s Comic isn’t a place where anything matches. It’s a place where no one will mind if you disappear into the stacks and aren’t seen again for a couple of hours, where an armful of books amounts to $12.50, and where you don’t know what you’re looking for, but you can be confident you’ll find it.