I love going to used bookstores.
But I definitely didn’t always. I tended to view used bookstores as a place of forgotten and unwanted books, where grandparents and preteens dumped the books they no longer found useful. Mostly I thought used bookstores contained their fair share of mass-market romance paperbacks, Betty Crocker cookbooks, an impressively large metaphysical section, a smattering of Boxcar children, a few beat up Complete Works of Shakespeare, and a huge Christian fiction section. All in all, the rejects of a life long lived, or a life just beginning.
Not to mention that used books were used—the spine was already broken in, the pages were already yellowing, there were creases in the cover—and none of it had been done by me. That was the full joy of buying books new: you were the one to feel the tension giving away in the binding when you opened it the first time, it was you who spilled coffee on page 162 when you were distractedly talking to your best friend while still holding the book open, you accidentally ripped the bottom of the third-to-last chapter because you were simply too excited to discover what happened next. You built memories into the book as you read it, and every time you looked back through it again, not only the joy of the story, but the joy of reading it, came flooding back.
So this was my opinion. And then two things happened: First, I went to college, and got really, really broke. And second, I went to Powell’s Books.
Here’s some fun facts about Powell’s City of Books: it is reputably the largest independent bookstore in the world, located in the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon. I would say which street corner it is located on, except that it is located on four street corners, seeing as this bookstore takes up an entire city block. There are four floors, color-coated rooms, 1.6 acres of floorspace, and four million books in circulation. In the event that those four million books couldn’t all fit in the main building, they opened a satellite store across the street (across one of the streets, I should specify) to accommodate. Since the store is simply too huge, they are kind enough to provide maps, and even developed an iPhone app to help you navigate. I am using the word “navigate” quite literally.
It was here that something magical happened. While hunting through the floor-to-ceiling stacks of books, I stumbled across a very old looking edition of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite authors, and one of my favorite books. Upon further investigation, I discovered this book was published in 1888—exactly 101 years before my eldest sister was born. On the title page, “Evelyn Agnew, Tasmania” was written in blue script, and “From the Library of Andrew M. Hay” was embossed in the bottom right corner. Upon further investigation, I found an inscription in the back of the book, reading, “Given by Evelyn Buxton (neé Agnew) to her daughter Burtine Hay (neé Buxton) and in time given by her to Andrew Hay, her son, in 1940, after reading it aloud with him.”
I stood in the stacks of Powell’s books, holding a book that had lived (yes, lived) for 125 years. Cars were invented, women were allowed to vote, prohibition came and went, the Depression arose, both world wars drudged on, the Beatles showed up, man landed on the moon, Steve Jobs started Apple, we somehow survived the 90s, the tragedy of 9/11 hit full force, a black man was elected president of the United States, and Warner Bros. finally finished making all eight Harry Potter films.
And this book had lived throughout all of it. I was struck by the testament to history I was holding in my hands. This book had traveled through three centuries, across an ocean or two, from England, to Tasmania, to countless other countries in between, until it arrived in Powell’s Books, Pearl District, Portland, Oregon, Blue Room, second floor, third stack to the left, bottom shelf, in my hands.
In my hands.
I could spend my life building a library full of books I had broken in, but I realized was a shame it would be. My library would lack the rich history of stories already written—not the ones in typeface, but the ones in messy blue ink and embossers. The histories of generations, of heirlooms, of forgotten treasures, of books loved and lost, that is what is unspoken in a library full of used books. It has taken me this long to discover a room full of new books is like a brand new church: beautiful to behold, but lacking a history—and how vital a history actually is. No new cathedral can bare the very real marks of a troubled bell-chimer, etching desperate words into the stone buttresses, that Victor Hugo stumbled upon and immediately began to write his Notre Dame de Paris.
And here you were, thinking The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a completely made-up story.
I like used bookstores. I didn’t always, but I do now.