BOOK ENDS: THE RISE AND FALL OF USED BOOK STORES

“Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?” Beecher, Henry Ward

“Those who don’t read good books have no advantage over those who can’t”. –Mark Twain

Books have always been my passion. After that, bookstores. Not just bookstores that sell new books, but especially used bookstores. When I was about ten years old and finding my way around downtown Cincinnati, I’d search for thrift stores that were on side streets and farther away from the hub of activity around Fountain Square. I was only interested in the used books these stores sold. Usually there was a table outside the shop, with a lot of old books priced at 25 cents each. It didn’t matter to me how dusty or worn the book was, as long as all of its pages were intact. Charles Lamb, in the Last Essays of Elia (1833) wrote, “A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog’s ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins.”

Eventually I discovered Acres of Books in the downtown area, one of the biggest used bookstores I have ever seen and I remember taking my kid brother, Scott, to that bookstore one year when I was spending the summer in Cincinnati. There were at least three floors of books, most inexpensively priced around a dollar each. I began buying the books that made up the nucleus of my original collection. This was long before I started collecting cookbooks. I discovered some authors I liked – Shirley Jackson, for one. Ardyth Kennelly for another. There were many others but there were also many authors that I simply outgrew, while discovering others that would become lifelong companions. If I LOVE a book, I want my own copy of it. I want to be able to go back, when I feel like it, and read it again. My reading interests were then, as they are now, eclectic—it never mattered to me what was on a better seller list or the talk of the town; I read what I found interesting.

Christopher Morley wrote, “Lord! When you sell a man a book you don’t sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book.”

I have these two Canadian penpals and we often have email discussions and frequently make recommendations to one another about the books we are reading. We have agreed that when you finish a really good book, one you didn’t want to end, you need to take a little time, a day or two, to come back to earth and come up for air, before, perhaps, picking up the next book in a stack by your nightstand of books-to-be-read. Because of the books they are reading, it has broadened the horizons of the books I am now reading. And sometimes, when you are reading a book that you absolutely love and don’t want to end, you stretch it out by a week or so, by reading only a few pages at a time. Thomas Helm wrote “My test of a good novel is dreading to begin the last chapter.” I get that.

I don’t remember any used bookstores being around either North or South Fairmount, where I grew up, but after the family moved to a new home in 1956, I discovered a kind of thrift store on one of the side streets that I walked to get to a bus stop—and they had books. An old woman ran the store and always seemed pleased to see me. The books were 25 cents each – so when I had twenty five cents, I often stopped there to buy a book.

We didn’t have the internet. There weren’t very many used book stores that I remember; that isn’t to say they didn’t exist—I just didn’t have access to them. There were always the public libraries –but much as I enjoyed going to the library, I was more drawn, like a moth to the flame, to pre-owned books.

Eventually, I married, we moved to California and settled down and I began finding the used bookstores in the San Fernando Valley. There was one I especially loved, on Lankershim Blvd. I think a bank now stands where that book store used to be. When we lived on Sarah Street, I’d put Michael in a stroller and walk to that bookstore. I began reading Agatha Christie—often returning the books I’d just read, so I could buy others. We had so very little money at the time and the Agatha Christie paperbacks were something like ten cents each.
Another bookstore that was a great favorite of mine was on Magnolia Blvd in Burbank. (At one time there were six used bookstores in and around Magnolia Blvd). I became acquainted with the owner of Magnolia Books, a man named Pete, when my children were very young. I always took them to bookstores with me. Pete would admonish me, good-naturedly, to make sure I left with the same number of children I came in with. As for me, whenever one of my sons used a public toilet of questionable cleanliness, I admonish them not to touch anything except their pants zipper and their penis. My son Chris was the one who ALWAYS had to go. I think he was more curious about the germs lurking in public toilets than actually having to GO.

I had shopped at that book store for decades—especially after I began collecting cookbooks; There was a great cookbook selection. I don’t remember exactly when Pete passed away; relatives ran the store for some years after. The ambiance, and Pete’s old camera collection, was gone. The last time I wanted to go spend an hour at the store, I discovered it had disappeared. A furniture store had expanded and took up the space where Magnolia Books used to be.

Well, that was a complete shock. But it was the tip of the iceberg, only the beginning of changes that were coming and affecting the used book stores. The Internet was coming.

Other used book stores in the San Fernando Valley began to disappear –Book City, in Burbank, Sam’s Book City in North Hollywood, the Bookie Joint in Reseda (which closed its doors in 2006),—but surely the greatest loss, the biggest shock was the closing of Dutton’s Books in North Hollywood. Dutton’s sold both new and used books and was so crammed packed with books…you could go in and lose yourself for hours. Dutton’s was the best known and possibly the most disheveled bookstore for miles around. The Duttons were well known and respected. Dutton’s had opened on New Year’s Day in 1961 by Bill and Thelma Dutton. Eventually, the business was taken over by their sons, Doug and Davis.

I had a slight connection to Dutton’s…at one time Davis and Judy lived next door to our friends Neva and Les on Chandler Blvd. Their daughter was about the same age as Neva & Les’ daughter Jennifer—so we met them at one of the birthday parties. Whenever I visited Dutton’s, if either Davis or his wife were on the premises, I would usually be given something like a 10% discount on my order.

For some months, Dutton’s had going-out-of-business sales and my girlfriends and I took advantage of the sales, all the while bemoaning the loss. Davis explained: used bookstores couldn’t keep up with the internet. I think Davis and Judy moved to the Seattle area.

Back in the 90s (or thereabouts) Janet Jarvits opened a cookbook bookstore in Burbank. The nucleus of the store started with her purchase of Helen Evans Brown’s cookbook collection. I bought many cookbooks in this store—but Janet eventually moved her store, lock, stock, and barrel – to a location in Pasadena that is not easily accessible to me. Meantime, another favorite used bookstore that I frequented in Northridge because of their wide range of cookbooks closed THEIR doors.

At one time, the San Fernando Valley boasted of about a dozen used bookstores.

In 2008, one of my Canadian girlfriends came to visit me, and we embarked on a Great California Adventure in my car. Our first day we made it as far as my favorite seaside location, Pismo Beach. I tantalized my friend with a promise of a “really wonderful huge used bookstore” we would visit the next morning, in San Luis Obispo. But when we got there the next morning, the book store was gone. No indication where or how it disappeared. I was crushed. Every time Bob and I had been in SLO, we spent hours in Leon’s, searching for books. They had such a great wall of cookbooks. Sigh.

Long before the internet came along, any time I traveled (often with my brother Jim, in the 80s and 90s) – I would tear the used book store listings out of the yellow pages in our hotel or motel rooms, and pasted the information in a steno notebook I kept. I also collected business cards from used book stores – any where we traveled. Once while Jim was at a seminar in Portland, Oregon, I was spending the morning at Powell’s book store. I didn’t make it beyond the section devoted to cookbooks and haven’t had an opportunity to go back again. In an article for Sunset Magazine, author Peter Fish, writing about Powell’s commented that calling Powell’s a bookstore is rather like calling Mount Hood a nice hill. “Powell’s,” he wrote, “is not quaint, not cute, not anything you might expect a beloved literary landmark to be. It is a 43,000 square foot-block-long dull yellow building that looks as though it should be filled with drill presses or Linotype machines but that is instead filled with books; new books, old books, aisles of books, rooms of books….” Ah, be still my heart!

I don’t know when Acres of Books in downtown Cincinnati disappeared (and at one time there was a “sister” Acres of Books in Long Beach, California) but when you live a long ways from your hometown and don’t get back every year, sometimes it’s a shock to find a beloved bookstore no longer exists. However, that being said – for the past decade I have been shopping at a place called Ohio Books, also in the downtown area of Cincinnati. They have a huge collection of cookbooks and like Acres of Books, take up three floors of the building. One year after I bought about a $100.00 worth of community cookbooks published by clubs and churches in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana – my nephew shipped the box of books home to me. They never made it. Eventually, one of the books inside the box, that had my address label inside, made it to me with the notation it was damaged at the Post Office in Bell, California. Nothing else ever surfaced.

The following year, when I visited Ohio books and lamented my loss, the owner said “You know, WE can ship your books home to you” and that is what I began doing. (*I think my nephew had the box too thickly wrapped with duct tape and caused mayhem in the post office’s conveyer belt). I was especially forlorn over the loss of a cookbook written by Fern Storer, “Recipes Remembered”. She had been a food writer for a Cincinnati newspaper for decades, and I collected her columns whenever possible. Well, I managed to find a replacement copy on Amazon but still grieve the loss of an entire box of cookbooks when I stop to think about it.

A few years ago, my sister and I, along with her youngest son and my youngest grandson, drove to San Diego to meet up with a niece and her oldest son. My brother in law got us a nice room near the bay and we spent some time at Sea World and a museum…but the day that thrilled the three adults were the used bookstores we found. One, whose name I can’t recall, sold nothing but cookbooks and was overflowing with cookbooks—piled precariously on the floors, overflowing bookshelves. My niece bought mostly French cookbooks; Susie & I stocked up on everything that looked interesting. I would go back to San Diego just to go to that bookstore. The children were not overly impressed; we three adults came away with glazed eyes—I’m telling you, it’s better than alcohol or drugs. (not that I have any experience with drugs aside from taking Vicodin after back surgery –but you get the picture).

Many of my nieces and nephews and two of my granddaughters are what we would call “avid readers”. I have always maintained that if you are an avid reader, most of the rest of what you need to learn will come more easily. In my own family, most of my siblings are avid readers. (That is to say, we never go anywhere without a book. When I travel, I have a book bag with several books in it, just in case I finish one, I’ll have another to fall back on).

Now that I am living in the high desert – where the only bookstore is a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Palmdale, plus a dismal used paperback bookstore that does not impress me much; I am limited to two Friends of the Lancaster Library book sales twice a year.

Last year, my sig other, Bob, built a library for us out of half of the garage space. When we bought our new home, we knew going in that it wouldn’t have a fraction of the space needed for bookshelves. We’d gone from 3000 square feet to 1500—so he built a library for me. As quickly as he finished putting up a bookcase, I’d unpack the box of books I want to put on that bookcase.

All our fiction and the overflow of cookbooks is in the garage library. My granddaughter was so impressed she set up a card file for me, knowing I often lend out books and don’t always get them back. Yes, I can just go “shop” in the garage library—which also has a refrigerator for soft drinks so we can make ourselves and guests feel right at home. But it’s not quite the same.

I never thought I’d see the day when used bookstores began to disappear from our literary landscape. Yes, I know there are numerous websites from which you can buy used books; I’m a frequent buyer from Amazon and Alibris—and yes, I know that many of the used book vendors at places like Amazon are the used bookstore dealers of my youth—and I value and appreciate the services they are performing: it used to be, you had to search high and low from store to store to find a particular book – now the internet does it for me, instantly.

But I mourn the loss of an actual dusty, dimly-lit overstocked bookstore—the kind with stacks of books piled precariously when no more shelf space was available, the kind of bookstore where only the owner or an employee who has been there a long time have any idea what is in their inventory—the kind of bookstore where you never knew, as you entered, what treasures you would find today.

And now there’s Kindle! Yikes!

“People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading” – Logan Pearsall Smith, Trivia, 1917

“May you always have something good to read and plenty of bookshelves to hold your favorite books” – Sandra Lee Smith

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3 responses to “BOOK ENDS: THE RISE AND FALL OF USED BOOK STORES

  1. Reading this evokes similar memories. Thanks for a trip down that lane.

  2. In 2009, I opened a little used book shop in Simi Valley called Oddfellow’s Books. We sell a little bit of every genre. The store is located at 4374 Eileen St., Simi Valley, CA 93063. Our telephone number is 805-520-4824. The store is open Monday thru Friday from 11:00A.M. to 2:00P.M. and on Saturdays from 11:00A.M. to 5:30P.M.

    Yes, I too lament the disappearance of our favorite used books shops… So, I have tried to correct the situation by getting into the business. I do hope you’ll spread the word to help support the shop. Thanks, Andy Bulles

    • thanks for writing, Andy — the next time I make it to Simi Valley, I’ll find your bookstore. I have thought along similar lines – maybe the only solution is for book lovers to unite and keep book stores operating. I hope a lot of Southern Californians read this message. – Sandy

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