About twenty-five years ago, I did volunteer work in a struggling used bookshop in San Francisco. Eventually, the store went out of business, but I was happy to keep paperback shelves stocked for customers who read everything from pop fiction to ancient history.
I went through a meticulous process with each book. First, I inspected the book carefully to look for damage or highlighter/underlining marks, and unfolded a few dog eared corners. Then I wrote the price in large numerals with a #2 pencil that wasn’t too sharp. Then each book was shelved exactly where it belonged. Whether the book was a title I respected or found useless wasn’t an issue.
The goal was for every book to find a home, whether or not the customer actually found time to read it. The part about reading was beyond my control, and for years I’d had more unread books in my apartment than I could handle so I didn’t judge. Yes, I brought some of my read and unread books into the store to recirculate them.
I also have pleasant memories of visiting used bookshops which are gone now. One in particular, McDonald’s on Turk Street in San Francisco, may have been past its prime by the time I found it. However, it had the cruddy, musty, disorganized atmosphere associated with the store’s previous Mission Street location. I found some great stuff — including old copies of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine — by accident at the Turk Street store, so the magic wasn’t completely gone. My father recalled seeing William Saroyan sifting through one of the book heaps at the Mission store.
Brick-and-mortar bookshops are on the way out. Electronic editions allow people to download many in-print and out-of-print titles on a moment’s notice, and online retailers are dominating sales of both new and used print copies. Even some thrift stores are keeping select donated books out of the customer area so those books can be catalogued and listed with online marketplaces, bringing in higher prices than thrift store customers pay.
Don’t get me started on the disappearing newsstand…
Today, a first rate article by Usman Ahmad was posted on The Guardian’s site. It’s about one secondhand bookshop in particular, Jumbo, in Islamabad, Pakistan. The article describes particular hardships which booksellers in the West will find familiar. Here’s a link to the article: