Nowhere City
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People / Places / Things
Ideas
Adventures in the Book Trade
by Deborah Markus

aying that I'm a library booster is stopping so far short of the mark that I might as well not have bothered aiming in the first place. I'm a library fiend. I'm a library novitiate. I would happily light a candle -- erect an entire altar -- perform complicated bloodletting ceremonies requiring me to wear absurd headgear and very little else -- every year in honor of whatever godlike being saw to the creation of public libraries.

I have yet to get over that awe, that first childhood thrill at finding out that I could walk into a building full of books and take any of them I wanted. True, I had to bring them back. And I had to be able to get them home in the first place, with only a backpack to aid me. And since I wasn't exactly the first one to get to them, the books themselves often looked less than lovingly cared for, which combined with my childhood lack of spending money may go far toward explaining my swooning lust for spankingnew books with beautiful covers, regardless of what they may contain in the way of actual words.

But never mind. The point is that I am one of those obnoxious nerd-people who know not only the librarians but their spouses and children by name and, when I am grounded by a cold or looming deadlines, miss the library more than I do fresh air.

So it's a safe-money bet that I was there when my local branch, a mere six blocks away, had their quadriannual book sale. (The last apartment I lived in, deep in the heart of the Miracle Mile district, had NO LIBRARYATALL. As I worked at a bookstore at the time, it wasn't as tragic as it could have been, although my husband -- who had to handle the rent aspect of things by himself since I'd willingly taken responsibility for keeping us in books -- might disagree.) And, for once, I drove. Exercise is all very well and good, but I had the feeling that in spite of my best intentions not to go library loopy, I'd have a hard enough time lugging my loot back to the parking lot, let alone getting it all the way back to my apartment on foot. I don't mind staggering home if I'm just drunk, but getting caught under the influence of books in broad daylight would be socially complicated. The neighbors worry enough about me as it is.

The book sale was held, as it always is, deep in the bowels of the aging library building. Dim and gray and dim some more. That was all right. Better than spreading the books out on the lawn like yard-sale goods. Too many people could see them there. I don't mind duking it out, elbow to elbow, with other veterans of the book-table wars. But it just curls my hair and grits my teeth to see some total amateur, some bimbo civilian, waltzing off with treasure -- treasure! -- because she needs something next to the bed to fall asleep over in case her vibrator goes on the blink.

Don't think when I say "treasure" that I'm one of those people who haunts book sales with an eye for that first-edition, that signed copy, that rare print run. I'm bored silly by trivia like that. The only time in my life I have ever given a damn about a first edition was when Stephen King's first Dark Tower book came out, and that was because the first edition was the only edition. I paid a hundred and sixty-nine bucks, which in nineteen-year-old-nanny dollars is just over two weeks' pay. And it was worth every damned cent. That book was good. But I'd have bought it in paper if I could. I don't care about market value. I want the book. The fact that I have as many as five different editions of the same title on my shelf at any given time is just a form of extremely localized insanity. None of those is worth more than the cover price. Many of them, thanks to my ruthless reading habits, are no doubt worth a good deal less. And I'd spit at gold offered for them. I know real treasure when I see it. Words in covers, baby, that's all it takes.

And that's what I was looking for here, this gloomy Saturday afternoon. They had a special Friday night presale, for the diehards who are willing to cough up ten bucks a year and be members of the special library club; but though the loot is often outstanding, the pressure's really on. You have just two hours if you get there right when it starts, and if that sounds like a lot then you've either never been to one of these events or you're not me. Probably both. More power to you.

I showed up in the early afternoon because I really wanted some mental elbow room. I'm lousy at making decisions under fire. I wanted time and space to stare at a single title for five minutes and ask myself if I was really in love or just momentarily infatuated. An important distinction when the available shelf space in our place has its own entry on the endangered species list. Really I shouldn't be at a sale like this at all. I have too many books already. But if I were the kind of person who could stay away from sales like this, my shelves wouldn't be so crowded in the first place. I shop for books at sales the way I clip coupons. I'm always on the lookout for something new and exciting, but mostly I know what I need. The tried and true. Any book I've checked out from the library more than seventeen times is ripe for purchase. Any book by an author I know and trust enough that, while I wouldn't necessarily run out and buy their books new, I'm happy to grab them used.

I don't have the prejudice against used books many people do. My husband can't stand pre-fingered pages. I had no idea how insanely in love with me he was when we were first dating and he actually let me borrow his books. I did wonder why he didn't exhale until said books were safely back in his hot little hands. But I don't mind treading where others have obviously been. I even kind of like it. I like reading the little notes people write to themselves in the margins. I know, I know -- scribbling like that is the worst kind of book behavior, and I'd never indulge in it myself. But I like to see when other people have. Call it a kind of voyeurism. Occasionally I'll find a brilliant insight. More often I'll find a statement so insanely stupid that it was worth the price of the book to get to laugh that hard. Either way, I call it a good time. I only found one marked-up volume that I wanted this time. Pretty early in the game, too. It was on the Women's Studies table. I would have been more impressed by the inclusion of that particular category if it hadn't been located right next to the Cookbooks. I wished I was still working at the radical women's bookstore so I could run and tell the owners and watch them have a compulsory radical heart attack.

This book was all about women's lives in New England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries -- homemakers and farm wives, devoutly submissive to God and husband, not in that order. I am a twentyfirst century atheist in California who can't sew or knit, has a black thumb even with the-nursery-guy-swore-nothing-could-killthem houseplants, and at slyly planned my wedding so my husband got the only set of vows that talked about obeying. Don't ask me what the draw is, but I embraced this book like an old friend.

And here was a book I'd read in library copy, all about Amish women. I like the Amish. I wash my own dishes and don't watch much TV; so far as my neighbors are concerned, I practically am Amish. Even without the hat. No, that's Quakers. Whatever. Oh, look. The book was signed. Not by the author, but by the person who bought it to give to someone else. Hope you enjoy this as much as I did and all that. That's the only kind of writing in books I really mind. It always makes me feel depressed and obscurely guilty. I mean, what if by some bizarre coincidence I become friends with the signee or worse yet the signer, and they come over to the house and see -- I know, I know. Ridiculous. I wanted the book, I should buy it. And keep it on a high shelf. Behind some other stuff.

I also nabbed a Susan Sontag volume that was in perfectly decent shape if you ignored a distinct tendency to bend, and a book about how our culture thinks that mothers are always to blame if their kid grows up weird. The way mine probably would because I was here browsing among the books without a care in the world when I should be at home with my four-year-old drilling through fine-art flashcards or rigging up a working miniature volcano.

Screw it. Time to move on to fiction.

They always have more fiction than anything else at sales like this. Sorted by hardcover and paperback, but past that you're on your own. Nothing remotely alphabetical, so you had to look really really closely at everything, make sure you didn't miss anything. Treasure hunting. You could tell the old hands at this by the deep hunch in their shoulders.

I saw several books I already owned and felt the usual pang of regret. What a fool I'd been to pay full price, when if I'd only waited five years I could have picked up a not-too-badly-mangled copy at a bargain price. It wasn't the money thing, though. It just feels wrong to pass by the book as if it means nothing to me. As if I'm some ignorant wretch who doesn't know its true worth. I have to restrain the urge to explain to those around me that actually this very book and I have a longstanding relationship, though it's by no means monogamous on my side.

I actually did buy a copy of a book I already owned. I don't intend to mention this to my husband, who is a patient man but has his limits. I had a perfectly good reason for making the purchase, in any case. The copy I owned was a paperback with a really ugly black cover. This one was the original hardcover in a suitably dreamy pink. Plus this one would prop open a lot easier at the dining-room table, and I always eat when reading this particular book because it's one of those English novels that talks about tea and cakes all the time and so I'm always starving twenty minutes into it. There's a plot and things, too, but I've noticed that the British never let passion interfere with the really important things in life. Like food. Rule Brittania. And here were a couple of Barbara Pym novels, speaking of tea-time book fare. And a novel actually called Tea, though on closer inspection I saw it was a perfectly American coming-out story. Close enough.

And here was a book I'd read when I was a kid. There's always one of those. Something I haven't thought of for twenty-odd years, and then I see some ratty copy and realize it's what I've been waiting for all this time. I wasn't one of those obnoxiously precocious kids who read Chekhov or Proust. Chekhov for me was that guy on Star Trek, and I still haven't read Proust because no one seems able to agree on how to pronounce his name correctly and so I'm not even going to go there. No, I was always whiling away the days with weird stories about time-traveling twins or cats who could suddenly talk. Real classics. Can't imagine why they're not in print any more. So I have to snap them up at sales like this.

I decided to take a little coffee break. Heaven kiss those little old ladies on the library board who insist that a book sale is no such thing without sugar and caffeine. There was a table to one side fairly groaning under the weight of a coffee urn and fifty-seven varieties of baked goods. Presiding was a children's librarian whose name is too long for me to spell out here, so I'll just refer to her as the Platonic Ideal of Children's Librarians. She's that good. I was lucky enough to be present when she was telling a farm story at the flannel board, and the crowd reaction when she started making pig and chicken noises could only be compared to the audience at the Beatles' American tour.

I grabbed a cup of coffee and spied a deep chocolate bundt cake. "Is this one of those dealies with the ribbon of fudge frosting in the middle?" I asked Platonic.

"No," she said regretfully. "There are chocolate chocolate chip cookies, though."

So there were. Big ones, too. I could get one and save half for later.

Which didn't happen, but at least I was good and fuelled up for the nonfiction table. Here was a nice copy of Measure for Measure, which of course I already had a copy of but not in this edition, which has wonderful scholarly articles and in which the footnotes actually outweigh the Shakespeare. Don't ask me why this is my idea of a good time. I don't explain my obsessions; I only indulge them.

A book of literary essays by a writer I quarrel with but on the whole enjoy. Very nice. An autobiographical work about a woman going off to live on an island in the Puget Sound and making the sort of vague, fruitless attempts to farm that I probably would. A slim, pretty little trade paperback all about coffee, cleverly titled Coffee. History of, best ways of brewing, recipes for.

Another book to eat my way through. Love it.

I leave these sales when not only has it become painfully obvious to me that I can't carry any more books, even in my teeth, but when those around me are moved to offers of help. Then and only then do I stagger over to the tally-up table. Ahead of me today was a man holding a good selection, including one volume I had considered and ultimately left behind. I resisted the urge to snatch the book indignantly out of his hands and demand to know who the hell he thought he was.

Finally I reached the head of the line, where my books were inspected by a spirited- looking beldame who eyed my pile thoughtfully, then went into complicated calculations. Times had certainly changed since the days when hardcovers were fifty cents and paperbacks a quarter. Today the hardcovers were a dollar, except the ones that were discards from the actual library shelves (I never like to think of why they're giving these the boot; it always starts me wondering if I'm bringing home a colony of excitingly rare, voracious, and possibly carnivorous insects along with my books). Those were less. And one of my hardcovers was in good enough shape to cost more than the others, and so were two of my paperbacks, and hi-ho the dairy-oh I was getting out of there for not less than the princely sum of eleven dollars and fifty cents. Which on my current budget felt something akin to what I'd paid for that Stephen King book once upon a time. Ah, well. I ponied up and tottered out to the car, where I dropped my purchases off in the trunk and checked the time on my meter. Half an hour left. Good. I was done with the sale, but I still had time to take a quick peek upstairs at the new arrivals shelf.

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