I was in Berkeley when used bookstores were closing. It was sad. A used bookstore reflects the background and general capacity of a community. For instance if one frequently finds popular modern bestseller fiction in a bookstore, it is easy to conclude the dumbness of the place: Big name authors selling glossy titles. The best place to find that crap is at bag sales – the last day of a library sale. Twenty books for a dollar, a nickel a piece.
Next comes series of books: Will Durant, Time-Life Books, captions next to pictures with a few pages of text. These books are found too often in used bookstores where they are overpriced. Like bestseller fiction they can also be found at the local library during bag sales at a nickel a piece.
Next comes books by journalists, writers, writers acting as scholars and politicians who churn out histories, commentaries and discussion of politics books without poor or incomplete analysis fueled by conventional wisdoms, commitment to the popular and publisher’s polls and filled with expressions of non-conviction. Hilary Clinton’s current book reveals it is written by a lawyer (not a compliment). It evades any strong sentiments, statements or decisions, except as a starting point: The author can flit from that point and fly. Books described in this category are nickel books.
In other areas – art, nature, environment, religion, sociology, sports, food, etc., are books similarly written books and each is filled with a nickel’s worth of words.
The death of a used bookstore is like the bag sale at the library. There is an overall poor quality of books and a great oversupply nickel books: For readers here who have never attended a library bag sale, a nickel book is one that might be read and get it out of the house. Nobody wants a library of Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, Al Sharpton and Chris Matthews. A library of books written by William L Shirer, Ernie Pyle and H.L. Mencken sounds much better, and also says something about the librarian or the homeowner.
Berkeley’s bookstores closed despite having books beyond the nickel parameters. There is no doubt that the community there has dumbed down. Maybe one-time readers would rather watch cartoons (animation), or play computer games. Reading anything challenging outside a field of expertise is less prized. The idea that any human being should have a core of knowledge and intellectual activities apart from day to day life, to use as a comfort or a resource during life, is coming foreign, unneeded, unusable clutter of the brain. The only existence human beings are expected to have is spontaneous, intuitive, reactive and catastrophic: Don’t anticipate the next disaster. Survive it.
One solution countering this human narrowness was books. Closing a bookstore no longer lets a human being browse, consider and find the unexpected. The most oblivious human being recognizes that browsing books in a library or a bookstore is different from mastering the TV remote or surfing the Internet. The advantages of the used bookstore over a library are old, unexpected books derived from the community and assembled to reflect the perspective of the store owner. A library is limited by its goals: Supply books that will be read in the community. Of course, garage and rummage sales and charity stores have books, but hundreds of trips may provide an instance of serendipity.
In Berkeley stores closed differently. One store was losing its long-term lease and sold off inventory over six months. I bought Notes from the Underground and rolls of clear packing tape for 75 cents. Other closings came quickly: Half off, 70 percent off, last day bag sales. Stores with special works sold the first: Pamphlets of left-wing writers. But the remainders on the last days were mostly nickel books. Quality books that cost little were gone: Clement Eaton’s history of the Old South has a text with $100 but is frequently sold for less than $2.00.
Now out of Berkeley, I’m watching a local used bookstore close. The owner is elderly and declining. He was slow getting on the Internet. As happens with many in the book business, his inventory was poorly organized. Many times shelves were partly filled. And there were plenty of nickel books. At one time before the rescission he would give cash for used books. He next went to trade credit only. For a year that has stopped. Two weeks ago all books were 70 percent off; I bought three. I learned another problem he had. He had marked books up 400 percent. I could buy the books as cheaply from Bookfinder as from him, at 70 percent off.
But the absence of that store and its collection, as imperfect as it was, will deprive this community of a place and resource of endeavor, friendship and intellectual stirring.
I’m unhappy not only about the bookstore closing, but also the quality and communication of the ideas herein. I don’t know how to improve it yet.