View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Used Book Stores 

I know we're coming out of the recession. The news is still basically good, and anyone could have predicted this little pause by looking at the markets, and at history. The last time we blew off an 8% quarter and a 4% quarter, we also paused before picking up for another 5 years of growth.

Still, every time we go through one of these things, something changes. This time, it seems to be used book stores. Denver/Boulder has lost at least 6 of them over the last couple of years: Willow Creek, the Bohemian Bookworm, Aion, Abracadabra, another one in Boulder, and one in Colorado Springs. Some converted to on-line only sales, others gone altogether. One even picked up and moved - I'm not kidding - to a barn in Sweetwater Junction, Wyoming.

One of the first things I do when I'm visiting a town is to look up the used book stores and see if there are any near where I'll be. It's not always bargains, of course. I once dropped 3 bills on an Encyclopedia Britannica 11th Edition (1911), and had it shipped back to DC. But I can always buy that one book, if it's something I've been looking for.

I know about ABE books, of course, and if I'm really looking for something, I'll try there, too. There's no use explaining it, though. Like most obsessions, explanations are either superfluous or pointless.

I need three things to browse. A cup of coffee. A little money. And knowledge that I'll have time to read what I'm buying. Maybe not that afternoon, but sometime. Going back to school has just about killed this passion. Two years of homework stealing every spare moment and student loans obligating every incoming dime have made every purchase a struggle. Another reason to finish up and get on with life.

For the last 20 years or so, I've made a habit of writing my name and the date on the flyleaf of new purchases. I'm not the only one who does that, of course, and sometimes I'll find myself adding my name to a list of those of two or three previous owners. But recently, I've taken to adding the name of the shop where I bought the book, too. Don't ask me why.

The best places for used book stores are college towns. Professors die or retire, and get rid of a lifetimes of books. It's why Boulder, until recently, had better used book stores than Denver, and why Georgetown still has a little used book row on P Street.

Still, even the ones there are going out of business. One wonders where the books go. Most of them are bought up by consolidators or other stores, it seems. Still, in a mere 200 years, we've gone from books being a luxury item to a throw-away.

Like anything, it can be overdone. Jefferson bankrupted himself buying books, when they were a little rarer. My own collection runs to about 3000 books. Last summer, when I was threatened with having to move to Austin for work, I started cataloging them, so I know. I've basically run out of places to put them, which also takes some of the edge of off browsing. When you know that those five books are going to mean a major reorganization when you get home, you think twice.

Ah, well. Enough of this. Back to the homework.

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