Acceptable Condition: Some Used Books Are Not

A paperback in barely acceptable condition.

The used Penguin copy of Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds has chocolate stains on the pages.  I think they’re chocolate stains. 

And that is not the only book in disgraceful condition.  Three pages of The Grapes of Wrath are dotted with holes, apparently from a paperpunch. Then there is a slightly foxed paperback of Hesiod’s Theogony, with a confused family tree of the creation myth scribbled in purple ink on the back page.

Ecce, as they say in Latin. Lo!  These all came from the same decaying store.  It reeks of mustiness and dirt, like a basement rec room or a rag shop in Dickens.  The name is The Bookstore, or perhaps Books, Books, Books!   We suggest it be changed to Acceptable Condition, which of course means the opposite.

“The problem with M’s store,” said a friend, “is he/she will buy any book in any condition to have a conversation.”

There are some lonely-heart bookstore owners, but I have observed mostly crusty anti-social types.  My impression is they are sick of humanity and just want to read the books. 

I was pondering this the other day while considering my long history and complex relationship with used bookstores.

In graduate school, we occasionally sold  books. I sold them so I could afford  tampons for too-frequent periods. My husband also sometimes sold books.  A cockroach once crawled out of a copy of Derrida’s Of Grammatology  he was trying to sell.  (It wasn’t his fault:  the cockroach was a southern thing.) As you can imagine, the store owner found it unacceptable.  

There are some extraordinary used bookstores.  I had good luck in a chilly (now defunct) bookshop called Linda’s, located in a dilapidated concrete building in Dubuque. In this quasi-garage, I found a Penguin of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers, a Barbara Pym I didn’t have, even a pristine set of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, published by University of Chicago.

There used to be countless good-to-great used bookstores and there are still some:   Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha, Paperbacks and Pieces in Winona, and Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis.  I would also love to visit The Frugal Muse in Wisconsin, because of the name.

What are your favorite used bookstores?  And have you found anything untoward in the less good ones?   Bacon as bookmarks?

Why I Don’t Work in a Bookstore

Meg Ryan as a bookstore owner in “You’ve Got Mail.”

I don’t work in a bookstore. It is probably what I was meant to do.

“You’re a natural teacher,” my mother said.  Then why was I so tired?

Teachers were all tired.  As the only Latin teacher I had three preparations (most had two)  and taught five classes a day (most taught four). I went home and took a nap, or zoomed off to aerobics class to work out the tension.  And then I prepared. And then I got up at 5 a.m.to grade homework and quizzes.

Here I am teaching Ovid in the “Big Glasses” era.

According to Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a study  in 2012 called Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession found that the average teacher works 53 hours a week.   That sounds about right.

Eventually I found a more creative job with flex-time.  I enjoyed it more, but I admit I worked  on my wedding day.  “I just have to finish this up…”

Why didn’t I work in a bookstore?  Wouldn’t the hours have been more reasonable?

I love books.  I sold them without meaning to.  I would go to a bookstore, chat about books, and sometimes a bookseller would come over beaming to say I’d sold a book.

I also amused myself by doing the “first sentence test.” I read a lot of first sentences.  The first sentence test isn’t too bad, really.  And other people started reading first sentences… and I sold books that way, too.

I did work at a bookstore briefly in Iowa City when I took a year off from college.  The men got to work on the floor with the books; we women had to be cashiers.   Hard to believe it was so sexist back then, but it was.  And we women all loved books:  there was one college graduate among us, one student, another woman on a gap year, and a smart head cashier.

My copy of The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence

The good thing about working in the bookstore was that we got to borrow books. The bad thing  was that I used to buy the books.  Madness! Here is my copy of The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. It cost $12.50. I made $1.60 an hour.  I put my money back into the store!  And so I had to leave.

If I had been allowed to work with the books,  I would have stayed and had a different fate!