A Reader’s Regrets

by Bryce Rogers (August 2012)

Being neither a devil nor an angel—and having sins no better nor worse than most—I suppose some of my greatest mistakes occurred in bookstores. Certainly many of my deepest regrets—painful even now to consider—stem from memories of lost volumes that I failed to purchase when I had the chance. Their dust jackets and covers—still bright like gems in the sun—live in the mind more vibrantly than many of the titles I carried home; I’m haunted like the day-trader who didn’t buy—or the angler who, returning from the lake, recalls only the sight of that dazzling trout swimming away.

These books—my gentle regrets—now form the basis of a ghostly library—a parallel collection of works that exists only in my mind, complete with a card catalog of the could be. In fact, they have come to serve as symbols for a life I might have lived: for decisions I might have made, women I might have loved, books I might have read.

I generally can’t remember why I failed to add these titles to my real library, but I suspect the reasons were variations on a theme: I was trying—and trying is the utmost fallen man can strive for—to control my bibliophilic expenses. Consequently, I made the mistake fatal to all who frequent used bookshops: I thought I could come back.

“Surely that hardcover set will be here next week.” “Surely if I just put this title where no one will find it.” “Surely—” The reasoning was always convincing at the time—irrefutable, often. But I knew my syllogisms were mere sophistry when I heard those cutting words: “Oh, we just sold it.”

At times I couldn’t avoid the suspicion that these replies were delivered with a malicious delight, that the clerk behind the desk wasn’t commiserating but condescending, that he was smiling the smile of a shark. In any case, these shopkeepers form an interesting type of humanity. I want them, of course, to be lovers of books—driven to preserve the codex, like custodians of culture, from the barbarians at the gate. But instead they often seem forced into their profession by an innate antisocialism—because human interactions pain them. Loving books and selling them are not the same thing, of course; and these stores are too frequently filled with schlock—yellowing romances, moldering mysteries, discarded self-help manuals—for me to believe the titles for which I hunt are of any meaning to the clerks. They’re just books, and the carefully selected stack I bring to the register elicits not the slightest flicker of recognition from their phlegmatic faces.

Mine is not the business they want anyway. They depend on the elderly women who swarm like ants in the aisles I avoid, returning to the store later to trade grocery sacks of discarded pabulum. This is the ecology of used bookstores—the trade in what I call tinder. And the owners patiently perform the algebra of credit, converting old paperbacks—many returning veterans of their stores—into a few more dollars’ worth of pulp. They generally do this in their heads, casting an appraising eye across the stacks, performing some quick math—no complicated algorithms for them—and then plucking a number out of thin air. “I can give you five dollars in store credit,” they say, always stressing the can as if constrained by the invisible hand.

Shopkeepers are prone to a number of idiosyncrasies, but the best of them are taciturn by nature. This adds to their charm, of course; for it would be vulgar to hawk books like sweaters: “Can I interest you in the complete works of Shakespeare?” Instead, they know their customers want to browse, and are content—either by constitution or choice—to let them. Thus the shopkeepers are all faceless figures hovering in the background of my regrets, figures who aren’t quite there—as in dreams.

Their nondescript character exists in direct contrast to that of the stores, for these are truly memorable, existing in an hierarchy of quality. The very best—the platonic form—of the used bookstore manifests itself most often in rundown old buildings. The floors creak, the shelves bow, the counter has an antiquated charm. If music must be played—and it is preferable that it’s not—only the local classical station should intrude itself on one’s consciousness. The shopkeeper should be elderly—as dusty and worn as the volumes.

I judge a store by its selection of literature, but its greatness generally depends upon the possession of rarer items: foreign language titles and works by university presses. These are “caviar to the general,” as Hamlet says; and when lighting upon an untouched cache of such texts, I have often felt like a prospector striking a vein of gold. My heart rate increases, I look warily at the other browsers in the store, I mentally calculate my bank balance.

I recently had one such discovery—in Connecticut—during a summer book run. We place diamonds in vaults, and secure masterpieces of the plastic arts in museums, but these literary treasures—forsaken and forlorn—had only two dilapidated barns to serve as their Schatzkammer. Thus I was initially dubious about my prospects when I pulled into the gravel drive that led to these decaying structures. Once I cleared the trees that lined the way, the shabbiness of the buildings—the slow conquest of time—was immediately apparent in the dazzling glare of the sun, like flaws in the face of an aging beauty. Turning off my car, I could hear the hum of insects and the rhythmic click of my engine. I looked towards the buildings: I had seen their like before, and often found that, were the stores to combust, I could in one trip save all the books worth preserving from the conflagration. Entering the first barn, however, I immediately recognized my mistake. I felt like one of the magi who, exhausted from his journey and tripping over farm animals, prostrated himself before the manger: in the humblest of settings I had found the divine Word.

Needless to say, I left with a grocery sack filled with booty, my forearms straining beneath the load. But I made my departure with more than just great finds: I left with a smile, for I had discovered not just rare books, but something far more uncommon. This store—though how it survived, I don’t know—was not online. None of its titles were listed on Amazon, and that means, more importantly, that none of the works were priced according to the whims of the online market.

The online book market is, of course, the only redeeming feature of the internet, and being able to procure almost any book at any time covers a multitude of cyber-sins—even if it can’t quite compensate for the plague of email. Amazon and sites like it have made it possible to obtain particularly scarce and hard-to-find works, books I’ve never encountered in a brick-and-mortar bookstore—nor could I even imagine where to look. Only twice have I failed to drag from the cyber-sea the title I wanted: the first was an obscure text by a French author from the early twentieth century, the second a chapbook of poetry published in a print run of 500 copies. I eventually obtained the former from England, but for the latter I’m still searching.

Despite the countless pleasures the online market has brought me—quite literally brought me, delivered to my very door in fact—it can at times prove frustrating. Presumably the law of supply and demand is in effect, but far too often I’ve encountered economic anomalies. The same used books will range in price from pennies to hundreds of dollars; editions will have multiple entries on Amazon, some of which will be much cheaper; a used softcover will cost more than a new hardback of the same title; and so on. I once saw a book selling for ten thousand dollars that was still in print and available from the publisher, new, for twenty.

Frequently, I see books that are too expensive, and that’s not the subjective assessment of a cheapskate; it’s quite literally true. Faded paperbacks will retail for hundreds of dollars when the publisher has returned the work to press; single volumes will sell at the cost of the complete set; out-of-print academic titles will cost hundreds of dollars, far more than anyone interested in the book is likely to pay—or be able to afford.

These economic anomalies have—all too often, I fear—a baleful effect upon used bookstores. After all, if someone somewhere might be willing to pay $50 for a particular title listed online, it does not follow—though the stores fail to note this—that most people, or the patrons of their shop, will do so. The prices online are frequently arbitrary: some bookseller determines a title is worth x, and all the merchants in America pencil it on the first page. The owners seem to think that if it’s listed for $50 online, it must be worth $50. The result is that no one buys—or reads!—the book in question.

Thus while I gladly avail myself of cyber-stores, I was delighted to find a shop still innocent of the internet. Most of the titles were under two dollars; many were just a buck. The books would have cost more—I know since many were on my wishlist—if purchased online. I thus enjoyed not only the primal thrill of the hunt—the ancient inheritance of man’s quest to survive now channeled through my more civilized veins—but the bourgeois delight of a bargain.

In a world in which bookstores are rapidly disappearing, such encounters—such delightfully spent afternoons—will soon be a thing of the past, like drive-in movies and roller-skating rinks. Books will survive, but I will no longer be able to experience the serendipity of discovery or the frisson from a great find. The bibliophile’s fatal mistake will soon become a permanent one: we thought we could come back. Though there are, no doubt, far greater losses in human history, I did not want this small pleasure—so much a part of my life—to disappear unsung. For such an omission would become an even greater source of regret.

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