I’ve gone on about my love for used books before. It’s always awkward, as someone who wants you to buy his new books, to talk about how much I love used books. In reality, though, I’ve bought plenty of new books because of a used book. Used Books are like gateway drugs: Buy one Elmore Leonard or Patrick O’Brian for $1 each in Skyline books, next thing you know you’re ordering every book they ever wrote from Amazon.
For me, at least, Used Books were never primarily about saving a few bucks. Sure, when Bleecker Street Books sold paperbacks for $1 each I’d sometimes buy 15 books at a pop, but really it was all about the thrill of discovery. Because Used Book Stores are just goddamn treasure chests of bizarre random stuff. Because their wholesale cost is usually low – and sometimes zero – for uninspiring paperbacks from bygone eras, they just pile them up everywhere on the off chance someone will pay them a few bucks for it. I’ve bought books I’d never heard of once in my life and gone home to discover they were huge bestsellers in their day. I’ve bought books no one else has ever heard of that have become some of my favorites. I’m going to miss Skyline Books, because they’re closed.
The point is, when I walked into Skyline, I never knew what I’d find. You get somewhat the same experience in a retail store like Barnes and Nobel, sure – there’s always the unknown waiting for you in a B&N, just like everywhere else. But in the big chain stores everything’s relatively new or a classic – there’s no uncanny valley of books that were once new and now are not, but which never made it into classic status. My bookshelves are filled with tasty books I’d never have found in a big chain store, and I like that. No online source will ever be the same, even if you someday can buy $1 used books via the Internets, because when you walk into a Used Book store, you don’t actually know what you’re looking for. You just go in with a spirit of adventure and see what you find, and the investment is so low you don’t mind taking a chance. Whereas when I’m staring at a $26 hardcover in Barnes and Noble, believe me, I’m going to do goddamn research before I plunk down for that book.
Let’s face it, the Internet is not good for browsing. Aside from the loss of the smell and feel of old books – a delight in and of itself to us old codgers – there’s just the time factor; In Skyline, for example, I could stroll down an aisle and glance at 500 book spines in a minute, just waiting for something to jump out at me. To glance at 500 books on the Internet would take about 3 hours, I think.
Oh well, the world changes and this is neither bad nor good, it simply is. The post-Skyline world is just as fine as it was last week, just different, and I think we’ll all find the strength to carry on. Still, I can’t help but wonder how I’ll ever discover tattered old paperbacks out of print since 1970 now – although some might wonder why I’d care about books so mediocre they’ve been out of print for 40 years. It’s either the drinking or a vision of my own future – take your pick.