Exactly What Is The Allure of The Used Bookstore?

Before I start this, I want you to know that I’m eating alone in the biggest Panera that I’ve ever seen.  To alleviate any of my feelings of weird awkwardness, I chose a seat right next to the “Employees Only” door and behind a barrier wall that blocks off the annoying couple talking about baby monitors and running shoes, and my macaroni and cheese.  There is, however, a large man in a ball cap and Bill Cosby sweater eating with his wife that makes eye contact with me approximately every three minutes.  OH NO, a couple in yoga pants (yes, both people in yoga pants even the male) just came to sit directly opposite me.  If this isn’t the pure euphoria my anxiety needed then I don’t know what else I can do to heighten it.  I am writing in the midst of a bear attack.  The man has a very high voice, as if he’s talking a lot of Maroon 5 songs.

I could spend this whole blog talking about the people surrounding me on all sides.

It’s a war.

But I won’t, I will keep on subject.  This was just your warning.

Venn Diagram Example

Every time I’m home in “the big city,” I hit up at least one of my three favorite used bookstores: Edward McKay Used Books & More, Reader’s Corner and The Village Library.  They each definitely have their own appeal, but there’s something innate at the core of all three because all used bookstores have the same nature, they are after all a categorized new species.  I think it’s partly the smell, a taste of odd ownership, postcards and pre-hipster-era sepia photos, business calling cards, stained carpeting, and the stackage of bookage.  That’s the closest I can get to the “similar” part of the venn diagram.

Reader’s Corner Free Shelves

The Reader’s Corner is my favorite just because the inside feels like a wool sweater and they give books away for FREE, but you have to usually stand in the rain in order to find a good one.  It’s just a superstition I have.  Their FREE books are left under an awning on the whole front wall of the bookstore, on rickety wooden shelves.  They also have a collection of “Reading Is Sexy” bumper stickers next to the cash register, one of which my car, Prince Frederick III, dawns proudly.  These bumper stickers would be even more hilarious if you knew the goons who owned this bookstore.  I think that a clutch of old men operate and own the bookstore.  I’ve only ever seen the same old man behind the register, who embodies what I imagine the guys behind “Car Talk” on NPR must look like.  His face matches their voices, even though he doesn’t sound like them. He also has old cronies around the register with their spectacles hanging down their bulbous noses chatting away with him about the weather, the latest Lady Gaga outfit change, or the newspaper headlines.

You know that commercial where all the old men hang out at McDonalds and check out the old ladies?  That’s Reader’s Corner, except they’re not at all interested in the ladies hanging around the joint.

Bookshelves @ Reader’s Corner

They also know a hellofalot about books.  I can ask them about any book, even the most rare, or the ugliest and largest of textbooks and they will know within three minutes if they have that book available.  And the key to this is that there’s no organization in that place.  They just haphazard the books around, a brain hurricane, books laying in the rubble, or personal space of other books.   The books are categorized by genre, but other than that, you just have to search and find.  It’s basically a Black Ops mission every time you go because you have to pull books from the shelves to see the price or read the blurbs, or just find what might be peeking behind them because all the gems are hidden, obviously.

My favorite poster at Reader's Corner

My favorite poster at Reader’s Corner

This takes me to Edward McCay Used Books & More which is…a chain.  You can sigh now. However, it’s the BEST.CHAIN.EVER. The books are stacked in old milk crates, the handled cardboard trays that your bananas come in off the truck, and somehow, I get a faint whiff of potatoes from the bottom shelves so I have to infer that potato sacks sat in the toughest crates at the bottom of the book pyramid.  That might just be a strange “off the farm” used book smell though.  This is my favorite place to actually find the books I want.  Their authors are by last name and the shelves are all labeled extensively down to “Mystery Thriller” V. “Mystery Fantasy” V. “Mystery Mystery.”

My feet at Ed McKay's

My feet at Ed McKay’s (See what I mean about the carpeting?)

Ed McKay’s is basically a huge warehouse of crates filled with books.  It smells like someone’s attic, and the carpet stains could live in a horror movie.  I love it so much because each section smells different.  The “Dramas” that haven’t been touched in decades (only by college students who don’t want to pay the astronomical price of books from the campus bookstores) smell of dust and washed and dried crumpled paper.  Leave something in your pocket through the wash/dry cycle and smell it afterwards and you will know exactly what the “Drama” and “Poetry” sections smell like.  The “Young Adult” section smells like need and slick plastic.  The “Contemporary Fiction” section smells like cat dander and expensive coffee.  The “Romance” section smells like sweaty lipstick and my most favorite smell of the sections, “Biography” which smells of inspiration, longing and fresh out of the package pantyhose.

Book Bargain

Book Bargain

I don’t make these things up.  BUT, Mental Floss studies them.

Book Nerves

Book Nerves

The spirit of Ed McKay’s is also why I like it there.  They let you sell your books in for trade money so I’m constantly doing that with my non-keepers.  The staff there are tattooed, dyed, pierced, and all dropped into a dryer bin of flannels.  They wear large rings that cover most of their middle knuckle, which throws the customer off from their delicate yet brilliant nail color of the neon or just plain black fashion.  Sometimes they look and sound like they’re going to a funeral and other times they’re wearing comic book tights and whistling.  I’ve smelled them too, but I won’t go into that.  I just have a strong nose.  They have hair colors that I would love to try, but would probably be fired, and they must have a stock pile of beanies in a back closet somewhere that occasionally infects the entire staff with lice.  This isn’t to say that I don’t like them, they’re always friendly, always really welcoming, and I wouldn’t want to buy books from anyone else than the “others.”  Because I’m an “other” and I prefer to talk books with “others.” You know, people that society has deemed “too much” or “too delicate” or “too fine” for most of its activities.  There’s a “muchness” about “otherness” that I like.  I used to think I was just a closet nerd and preferred to be alone, but then I started calling myself “mysterious” like a want advertisement and then I finally just admitted, I’m an “other.”


Ed McKay Shelving

We’re our own species too, which is why we hang out in scarves and toting messenger bags in used bookstores.

My last favorite should be everyone’s favorite.  If you read this blog, you better be regularly hitting up your local library.  The Village isn’t the closest library to me, but it’s the biggest, so I go there.  It has its own elevator and its own coffee shop.  RIDICULOUS. Plus, they carry every Mary Roach book that exists and they let me hide all of Ted Hughes’ poetry collections because I’m still angry with him about Plath.  There’s a cozy seating area, the children’s giant room always has paintings and a large, tissue paper version of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”  To this day, I plan on asking for that hungry caterpillar for my child’s room when I become a woman who actually believes she has those instincts and owns one of those countdown clocks.  For now, I’ll just continue to be selfish.

Village Drop Off

Village Drop Off

The best part about The Village is that its on the ritzy part of town so wearing sweatpants into the library is a thrill.  It’s like going to church in ripped jeans.  The bobbed hair cuts and gold button suits stare you up and down.  How dare you step into their marble book room.  MWAHA. It’s always worth it to aggravate the authorities.

What are some of your favorite used bookstores and more importantly, what do they smell like?  I want to know what I’m missing here in other states so when I retire, at 297, I can take a used bookstore road trip and write a book. I’m probably using you at this moment, but no really, I want to know what you think.

18 thoughts on “Exactly What Is The Allure of The Used Bookstore?

  1. the Found Girl says:

    Oh, wow, all I can think of reading this and looking at the photos is that I really need to get to the US. Those books are actually ordered!! Where I come from, I’m lucky if I can find any staff so they can shrug innocently when I ask them about a certain book. As to what old books smell like here, it’s a mix of mildew, old lady perfume and a kind of ink that mysteriously changes smell when the book changes hands. In short, I love it.

    • Cassie says:

      Oh no! Where do you live? You have to become the book whisperer in your hometown and tell people all the great books they should read. Love the smells, especially the ink.

      • the Found Girl says:

        Good ole Romania, land of dragons, vampires and whatever else Holywood decides next (can you tell it bothers me ha ha?). That’s a thought. One of my secret dreams is to one day own a bookstore. I’ll let you know about it so you can come visit and write about it in your future book.

      • Cassie says:

        Oh! Land of dark fairytales! That would be awesome if you opened your own bookstore! You could decide all the smells and sounds and tastes if you had foods. I hope it becomes a very real dream. My secret dream is that book you mention so we shall see!

  2. nmp3102 says:

    The Strand is amazing… a little bit of disinfectant, and the ink of new books radiating off the covers. Rizzoli’s is not used but still incredible… more like a museum (if you can imagine that), with old wood or a fireplace and warm-soup-on-a-cold-day type of vibe. And Bruised Apple smells like graphite pencils and a hidden sort of hope.

    Love old book stores and love this piece!

    • Cassie says:

      Bruised Apple, what an AWESOME name for a used bookstore. I love the smell of graphite pencils and who doesn’t love hope. I’ve heard great things about The Strand. I do want to visit this museumish used bookstore, it sounds like quite the relic. :) love it!

  3. lucysfootball says:

    I have a terrible confession.

    There are no good used bookstores in my entire area.

    And I live in the capital district of my whole state! I know!

    We have a used textbook store, and a used popular-novel store (mostly paperback Stephen King/John Grisham sorts of things) and that’s it. There’s a constant used book sale going on at the library – I tend to haunt that – and every time I vote, the PTA is having a used book sale, so I get books there…but otherwise, my used books all come from Half.com.

    However, I still have used-bookstore memories: when I lived in Arizona, we had Bookmans, which was a used bookstore/media store/coffee shop, and you could find anything you didn’t know you were looking for there. Everyone working there was a hipster before there were hipsters. It smelled of hope and words and mystery and a wee bit of incense.

    The Strand in New York City is mind-blowingly amazing and huge and you can get lost in the basement, where it is musty but also magical, and there are shadows that might be ghosts of browsers past.

    And my first real used bookstore, right next to my university in college (which has since closed, the internet tells me – sniff) smelled like adulthood, and freedom, and wet galoshes, and they’d give away books with the covers cut in half on a regular basis – good books, too. I still have some of those. I’ll pull one out of my bookcase and smile, knowing exactly where it came from.

    This is a very long comment. I love this post, and want to come visit you to haunt all your used bookstores with you. I’m in severe withdrawal.

    • Cassie says:

      There was actually a complaint online that Reader’s Corner rips the covers off of books and then I was like “well at least you know where you got them,” just not sure they so that and if they do, maybe sometimes we need to just love at first sight a few words of some books. I need to visit this “The Strand” bahhhh! It sounds amazing and that one near your university – wet galoshes – what a perfect description. My iPhone wanted to type “wet go lashes” which I thought was kind of funny. Whenever you’re near me, come!! We would have so much fun and stay up way late buzzed on caffeine and good conversation :)

  4. Anne says:

    Umm, there is a Half Priced Books a few blocks from my house… Seriously though, I haven’t been to any used book stores in my area since I moved here almost four years ago. I think you gave me a mission for this weekend. And I have a strangely sensitive nose, so it’ll be hard to not notice the book scents now that you’ve mentioned it!

  5. Amanda says:

    I’ve noticed a lot of the used bookstores around here (here being Seattle) have cats wandering the aisles. They typically smell musty, a little stale, and the shelves holding the sci-fi and fantasy books are crammed two deep. Twice Sold Tales is a cat store – I freely admit to going in just to pet them. But my favorite used bookstore is one that sells new and used books side by side. Third Place Books doesn’t segregate their books, so if you go looking for a title, you don’t have to find the special section where they shunt the battered copies. No, they’re right there next to the shiny new ones. I love it.

    Supposedly there’s a store south of here (in Kent, WA) that’s housed in a warehouse. I’ve never been, but it’s the place that has all the obscure titles you’ve never heard of by authors who were incredibly prolific but didn’t make a dime off their words, dead or alive. A friend of mine loves the place. Some day I’ll go.

    • Cassie says:

      Ah all of these sound awesome! I’ve heard of Third Place Books. I’ve heard good things but never what you said about new and used books. Seattle also has Poet’s House which I think is the largest poetry bookstore, new and used, in the US, it not the West Coast.

      Ps. Love a good cat store.

  6. wren08 says:

    We have a McKay’s here too… and like any good chain, they seem to be the same where ever you go. The rest of the really good used bookstores seem to have gone out of business *sigh*


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