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Used Bookstores and Why We Need Them

Used bookstores offer more than just an inexpensive copy of your favorite classic.

After a week of touring schools with my daughter and seeing the impact technology is having on education, I couldn't help but be impressed. With iPads, Kindles and the Internet, students of every age are now tackling the most boring of subjects with passion and energy.

It left me exhausted.

I sometimes yearn for slower times and often remember myself as a young, glamorous woman living in Manhattan in the 1970s. Believe it or not, my favorite Saturday night past time was going down to the Barnes and Noble annex on Eighth Street, where I poured over endless books.

I wished all it took to absorb the literature was to lay my hands upon the hard cover. Closing my eyes, I would thrill with the adventures pouring through my veins, the photographs of masters shocking my brain with their clarity of subject matter, explosions of color.

Thank goodness we have not evolved that far, but even in that daydream, there is still the bookstore. Now all of the magic happens on a flat computer screen at our nearest coffeee shop or at home on the couch.

Needing to reboot my soul, I took a trip to my local dark, overcrowded, used book shop. Pushing open the door, a little bell attached to the door rang as I entered. Dust danced lazily in the streaming light from the windows, a testament to the stillness within.

There was only a scant three foot wide aisle to enter into, but 'Oh! The treasures to behold!'

I winded my way to the back of the store, passing piles upon piles, shelves upon shelves, of used books from every era.

The first book I picked up was from the turn of the twentieth century, “Junior Songs” by Hollis Dann, professor of music at Cornell University. The book was filled with the laments of homesick immigrants. There was the Polish National Song, Bedouin Love Song, Song of the Immigrant, Our Native Land, Chief of the Arab Band, The Marseillaise, America the Beautiful. This was no mere music book. This was a history book that told of the time when almost everyone here came from somewhere else, and missed home.

Turning the ragged brown-edged pages, my eyes fixed upon a song called, “You'll Soon Forget Kathleen,” by W. Langston Williams. Here are the verses, and see if your heart doesn't ache with the experiences of your ancestors.

“Oh, Leave not Kathleen, There'll be no one to cherish her, alone in the wide world, unpitied she'll sigh. And scenes that were loveliest when thou were but near her, recall the sad visions of days long gone by.

Oh, leave not the land of your childhood where, joyous pass'd the first days of your youth, where gaily we wandered 'mid valley and wildwood, Oh! Those were the bright days of innocent truth.

Tis vain that you say that you'll never forget me, To the land of the Shamrock you'll ne'er turn more. Far away from your sight, you will cease to regret me. You'll soon forget Kathleen and Erin Go Bragh.”

I felt a tug o' my heartstrings as I remembered my grandmother's wish to return one more time to her Ireland, but she never did.

I perused a few other music books from that era and found the same nostalgia for times gone by; lands left, and new lands found.

As I rounded a turn through the catacomb of books, I was hit by American culture from every decade. The old books were like the DNA of our country, holding the recorded memories of every thought, every fad, every religion, science and passing fancy.

One shelf held both Willa Cather's pioneer stories and Jackie Collin's celebration of wealth, stardom and decadence. In just short of 100 years, it is astonishing to see where have we come from, and where we did go.

And now? What books herald our future, because even in a used bookstore, the future exists.

I found it right next to the books of Cather's frontier; novels by Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist and the Pilgrimage. Is that the current journey of America? With lands conquered, will the country now look inward, into the frontier of consciousness and spiritual awareness?

The self indulgences of Collin's 1980s are gone with our deflated economy. Now the country celebrates giving back and the power of the group rather than only individualism. The path is unrolling before us and we walk without even realizing it. The books are our maps.

Squeezing through the narrow aisles, I come face to face with How to Make Money, Thinking Positive, Mid Life Crisis, How to be Younger, romance, science fiction, and then, Charles Dickens.

I stop and am hit by the sacredness of the books. Dickens is an almost scriptural account of our culture. Whether we like it or not, it is the stuff we are made of, it is the revelation of our weaknesses and our strengths. We learned about evil from Dickens, and innocence, pure beauty and good.

Almost overwhelmed with the power of the close space, I began to make my way out, when the shopkeeper said, “You can't leave without seeing these.”

Climbing a chair, he reached up to a tall shelf and brought down a stack of dime store novels and pulp fiction, all now priced at close to $100.

With colorful covers of strange creatures and barely dressed damsels in distress, yet another era has been revealed; alive, real in my hands today as it was in someone else's hands 60 years ago.

And therein lies the sadness with which I greet our current path. The world is spinning faster and faster, and I wonder, when this generation gets older, what will they cherish about their past? Could it be that old 1990's Macintosh I keep in my office? I should hold onto it. It may be worth a lot of money someday.   

Alex Tytler February 20, 2012 at 02:40 PM
Small minds, I thought I would never agree with you about anything, but you have this one 100% right. Chopping trees down and trucking them all over the planet with ink on them to disseminate information is over. Book stores are like record stores, a thing of the past.
Steven DeVaux February 20, 2012 at 09:19 PM
Everyone vote with your dollars. Books or IPads.
Carol Ziske February 21, 2012 at 02:15 PM
One of my favorite things is the read a book than pass it along to my family members and friends to read as well!! I think people need a rude wake up call on the impracticability of e-readers! I was highly entertained during Irene and Alfred this past fall. My books stayed charged! Plus, for studying reasons or read hearth I was able to write right on them and use sticky note. It's a tactile experience to read a book, comprehend it and love it! Heard on NPR the other day that the idea of bookshelves in a home would become a thing of the past unless the person was a serious collector. I have 6 book shelves in my home and I would never get rid of them! I have a sort of relationship with each one of my books. I remember when I read them, how it made me feel and what I took from them! I want my daughter to feel the same way as she grows up!
Carol Ziske February 21, 2012 at 02:20 PM
If people don't want to use trees for paper... Then use hemp!!!
Mike February 22, 2012 at 06:59 PM
As chique` as it is to say how "liberal" our country is, it's still far too conservative to accept the fact that Hemp is a viable source for things like paper.

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