The Thrill of the Search: An Argument for Used Bookstores

I love used bookstores. I love that musty smell of years of information and entertainment gathered in one place. I love unearthing a decades-old book, the author's words seeing the light of day for the first time in half a century. It's undiscovered nostalgia that has waited years for someone like me to show up.

New bookstores just don't inspire this same feeling.

Don't get me wrong, I love new bookstores. When I was a kid, I would beg my parents to take me to the Muncie Mall so I could wander around the Reader's World bookstore. I would spend what felt like hours poring over the science fiction and mystery sections.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I would raid Barnes & Noble's bargain shelves, armed with birthday gift cards. On a good day, I could walk out with a stack of books as long as my arms.

But the new bookstores don't hold the same appeal for me that they once did. 

Nowadays, new bookstores are formulaic and predictable. Inevitable, even. When I go into a Barnes & Noble, I see the same books over and over. The same political memoirs and analysis from the same news pundits on the New Arrivals shelves. The same Neil Gaiman books with the HBO covers. The same wall of James Patterson books, a second wall of John Grisham books. The same business books. The same I-am-the-Chosen-One post-apocalyptic vampire YA books. 

If a bookstore was like a radio station, Barnes & Noble is the family-friendly Top 40 station that plays only artists chosen for their marketability.

Independent bookstores are better because they break the formula and stock whatever they feel like. Local authors, Black authors, LGBTQ authors, and indie publishers. They support new authors, host events, and occupy an important place in the community.

You don't find that in a Barnes & Noble. All they have are the tables filled with These-Books-Are-Now-Movies with placards printed at Barnes & Noble headquarters.

The treasures are buried in the used bookstores.
Most of these are unread. So far.

In the used bookstore, finding a book is a total crapshoot. You could find literally anything. Some used bookstores sell new books, so that's a way you can scratch that itch. But they all have books from your childhood, books your parents read, and in some cases, even books your great-grandparents read.

You could find a New York Times bestseller someone dropped off after last Christmas, or you could find an 80-year-old copy of a pulp fiction novel your grandfather read.

I have a list of books that I regularly search for. Any time I visit a used bookstore, I search for a few items. Over the years, I've even found a couple which makes the game more fun.

The rule of the list is that I'm not allowed to go online to buy the books. I have to search for them, and if I don't find them, I have to keep searching. When I do find one, I swoop down and buy it because who knows when I'll find it again?

Just a few weeks ago, I found an Ellery Queen novel I've been looking for since last year. A few months ago, after a five-year search, I found a DVD of one of my favorite British mysteries for only $14. I've seen it online elsewhere for $100, but I found it for a great price.

But that's not the point of the Used Book Treasure Hunt. The search is the key. The journey is everything. It's the thrill of the hunt and the joy of discovery.

There's no thrill in ordering a book from Barnes & Noble or Amazon. It's a joyless hunt, like the guy who sits up in a tree blind, covered in head-to-toe camouflage, spraying on deer urine like a high school kid going to prom, waiting to snipe a deer.

There's no challenge or chase.

So you can keep your big chain bookstores with their uniform layouts and standardized selections.

Give me the independent bookstores that have distinctive personalities and peculiar displays. A bookstore with a resident cat who greets everyone because she knows book people are good people. A bookstore that celebrates unusual people because they're the most interesting.

Give me a used bookstore that has more books than they have shelf space for. The stores that stacked books on top of their shelved books. Stores that piled books two feet high in front of the shelves. Stores that have created tunnels by laying plywood between two bookshelves and sticking books on that.

If you're itching to get out in the next few weeks, put your mask on, and visit your local used bookstore or independent bookstore. Pick a book you've wanted to read for a while, maybe your favorite book from when you were a kid, and search for it.

No web searches, no online bookstores, just good old-fashioned sleuthing and the enjoyment at finding your long-lost treasure.

And let me know if you find a copy of Ellery Queen's "The Murderer Is A Fox." I've been looking for that since last year, too.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers

My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available on Amazon. You can get the Kindle version here or the paperback version here.