The Value of Used Books

Some authors can be prickly about libraries and used book stores. And, honestly, when someone tells me “I love your book! I’ve lent it to everyone I know!” my joy in their enthusiasm of my work is tempered, slightly, with the knowledge that lots of folks are reading my books without having bought it. You know, because I need money to live. But it doesn’t bother me too much. Some authors – some well respected, “legendary” authors – act like this:

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Of course, Jerey (or Jeremy) responded the best possible way:

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As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care how people discover me and my work:  libraries, used bookstores, brick & mortar shops, ebooks, lent by a friend. I hope those people who pirate books eventually become fans and plop down some money, for my sake, and for all the people who work at previously mentioned libraries, used bookstores, brick & mortar shops. It’s my job as an author to write a book good enough that when they do have money to spend, they’ll spend it on my work.

Neil Gaiman, who is becoming the Dalai Lama of the literary world, has this to say about piracy, copyright, and lending books.

 

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horror_sectionWhen I was a kid, The Paperback Writer in the Heights was my go to used bookstore. Once every two or three days I’d pack a backpack full of books, take whatever money I might’ve made from mowing lawns, and walk for fifteen minutes from 5315 Sherwood Road into the Heights where I’d enter a world of endless possibility and joy. Row upon row of used paperback books, the smell of pulp and glue hanging thick in the air. The Paperback Writer had an extensive sf and fantasy section and I cut my teeth (re)reading the standard fantasy and sf fare available in the early 80s. The thing is, I was a kid without much money but an insatiable appetite for words. Stories. Books. And The Paperback Writer was closer than my local library, and offered a better selection of SF/F. I could keep the books, or trade them in, if I wanted. Win fucking win, right there.

Much of my formative time as a reader (and consequently, writer) was spent in and out of those hallowed doors. There I was introduced to all the authors I still love today – and some I dislike (see above). The cheap and easy access to a world of books instilled in me a love of language and story. Not a bad thing for a snot-nosed kid.

A display at Singularity & Co.
A display at Singularity & Co.

Eventually, The Paperback Writer went away – I’ve always suspected they received a cease and desist letter from The Beatles’ legal team – and it was replaced by another used bookstore, Faded Fables, this time in the Hillcrest neighborhood. Still within walking distance!

All through college I was able to buy books for my English classes at Faded Fables and it was also there I discovered their massive mystery and crime section. It was like another epiphany that I’d had when I was younger and discovering stacks of fantasy at The Paperback Writer. At Faded Fables, I received my primer in the great crime and mystery authors; Chandler, Hammett, Westlake, Christie, le Carre, Sayers, Fleming, Stout, Follet, ad nauseam.

Here’s how it works. You pick up, say, Richard Stark’s The Man With the Getaway Face or maybe Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane pop it in your backpack and take it home. You read that sonofabitch breathlessly in one sitting, because those bastard authors like to hook you, and then the next free moment you have, you hop on your bike and pedal breathlessly back to Faded Fables to see if they have The Outfit or The Illearth War. They don’t. So either you tear the order form out of the back of the book and send in your money to the publisher for the next installment, or you beg your dad to take you to Books-A-Million, or Waldenbooks, or Barnes & Noble so you can buy the next installment.

Libraries and used bookstores are a gateway drug.

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Recently, I went to Chuck Wendig‘s booklaunch for The Blue Blazes at a used bookstore in Brooklyn called The Singularity & Co.  It was a wonderful little event (if a little hot). Michael R. Underwood, wearing his sales (instead of author) hat, served charcuterie and he and Chuck chatted up the crowd. I perused the shelves. Looking at all the old books – full of series like Julian May’s Jack the Bodiless and Jack Chalker’s The Dancing Gods, Piers Anthony’s Xanth  and Bio of a Space Tyrant, the grey, wondrous paperbacks of LeGuin’s Earthsea series, Choose Your Own Adventures, John Norman’s Gor, Niven’s Ringworld and Man-Kzin Wars and other tales from Known Space, Christopher Stasshelf’s The Warlock in Spite of Himself, David Edding’s The Pawn of Prophecy, and SO MANY MORE – I realized that this, this pulpy, weathered collection of antiquated speculative fiction was a window into my childhood. If you want to know me, this would be a good place to start. And while Chuck and Michael charmed attendees and my agent schmoozed, I stood there staring at the stacks of books and marveled, the ectoplasm of nostalgia hanging in invisible streamers around me, at their collection.


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From the time I was twenty-three (when Faded Fables, my last used bookstore, closed) until I was thirty seven, I read at least five books a week. Fourteen years. Most were paperbacks, or trade paperbacks, though I always bought hardbacks of my favorite authors. But just for argument’s sake, let’s price them at $7.99, just for the fuck of it because there were times I was sick or on vacation or pressed for time and might not have been able to read that many books. So, that’s about 728 weeks. 5 x 7.99 = $39.95. So, spent around forty bucks a week on books. That sounds about right.

I’ve spent around $29,083.60 on new books in the last fourteen years. I’d say at least $300 of that was on that asshole author at the top of the screen.

No, I don’t think used bookstores are hurting authors.

Plus, if there weren’t used bookstores, would you ever get to see this advertisement again?

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Last Thursday, as I was driving home, exiting the interstate, my daughter, the bookish one, exclaimed, “Hey! Dad! There’s a sign for a used bookstore!” Sure enough, a cheap little wire sign was stuck in the grass near our exit. USED BOOKS! 6801 W. 12TH! was all the sign said. When we arrived home, I looked up the address and realized it was just, literally, a two minute drive from our house. Today we went to investigate.

The store is called The Book Worm. What a perfect name.

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We drag our pasts with us through life, like a comet’s tail. As a novelist, used book stores connect me with the history of publishing and the history of the genres in which I write. For some out of print authors, used bookstores are the best (if not only) way to get some of their books.

When I opened the door, the little bell dinged – triggering the book worm’s salivary glands, no doubt – and I was pleased when the smell of wood pulp and old glue permeated into my awareness. Row upon row of books. Neatly organized. Heaven.

My youngest and I roamed the stacks and I pulled two wonderful old novels off the shelves that would be appropriate for her. Two books that I remember reading with the exact same covers when I was eleven or twelve. Books that I never wanted to end.

For me, it’s all connected. Books are like kindness, their impact extends beyond the margins of their pages.

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4 comments

  • “Gateway drug” is the perfect description of used book stores. Without them I wouldn’t have discovered an author like Charles Portis. The other important thing about used book stores is that they’re reservoirs of titles of that have gone out of print. One of my favourite writers is Olivia Manning, but most of her work can now only be found in used book stores, and the same goes for once popular genre writers like Adam Hall or Alistair MacLean. My latest used find was a brilliant novel by Italo Calvino called The Baron in the Trees written in 1957. Try finding that at Barnes & Noble. My review of it if you’re interested:

    http://www.jettisoncocoon.com/2013/06/book-review-baron-in-trees-1957-by.html

  • Pawn of Prophecy! Good choice! David Eddings was my gateway drug into fantasy:)

  • Another +1 for Pawn of Prophecy. I was in my late teens/early twenties when I got hooked on Eddings. I still keep an eye out when I go to a used bookstore.

    • My daughter and I are reading it together. She’s liking it, very much. I’m having some trouble with the writing. Namely, almost every bit of dialogue attribution has a needless adverb. “I don’t like it when authors do that,” John said sullenly.

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