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