Used bookstores possess a certain inscrutable charm: the warm, stale smell of old books; the maze-like rows; the disheveled shelves; the sometimes-surly employees. These hole-in-the-wall shops, overflowing with volumes of literature by obscure authors, are a paradise for some, daunting and impregnable for others.
“You either get it or you don’t,” said Jay Platt, owner of West Side Book Shop on West Liberty Street in Ann Arbor. And from the look of his shop, it’s clear that Platt is someone who “gets” the appeal of books. Stacks of them surround the desk in his quaint shop, and shelves brimming with them tower over him. A glass case in the middle of the room displays the store’s most prized volumes, including pristine first editions of “The Scarlett Letter” and “Through the Looking Glass.”
Platt, a University alum with a degree in naval architecture, became interested in books when he went into a used bookstore in New York City in 1970.
“It was like turning on a light bulb,” Platt said.
He got into the business that year and opened West Side in 1975.
One of the store’s most impressive books is a Bible printed in 1610. It’s a giant volume, close to five inches thick and a foot tall, with intricate gold inlay on the cover. Holding the book in your hands, it’s hard not to feel some sense of wonder at its history and sheer substance.
“We all like the physical presence of a book,” said Bill Gillmore, owner of Dawn Treader Book Shop a few blocks away on East Liberty. Gillmore started his shop the same year as Platt, but the founding of his store was more accidental.
“Basically, my landlord pushed me into it,” Gillmore said.
Gillmore had been working as a bookbinder in the basement of the Michigan Theater when his landlord told him he had to come up with a retail option or his lease wouldn’t be renewed. And so Dawn Treader was born, and Gillmore got to keep his lease.
Dawn Treader is deceptively large, extending farther back than the small storefront suggests, and containing 70,000 books.
“This place has more books than it can hold,” Gilmore said. The shelves reach almost to the ceiling, and knee-high stacks of books line the floor.
The allure of the tangible
Though some used bookstores have closed in recent years, Ann Arbor is still a more supportive environment than many other cities, contends Pablo Alvarez, curator at the Special Collections Library at the University.
“I think Ann Arbor is very fortunate because, considering the size of the town, there are so many secondhand book stores, and that is really unique,” he said. The Special Collections Library, housed in the Hatcher Graduate Library, holds historical and culturally significant books ranging from ancient medieval manuscripts to contemporary novels. Among the collection’s more noteworthy holdings are a second folio of the works of Shakespeare and a manuscript in Galileo’s own hand, written in 1609.
“Some of our books, I would argue, are in a very similar condition to the way they were read 400 years ago,” Alvarez said.
This, according to Alvarez, allows one to reconstruct the reading experience of the book’s original audience, a process that is only possible with a physical, printed book.
“If you see many digital collections, exhibits, very few of them tell you how big the book actually is, and that’s very important because you really need to know whether, for instance, the Bible was held in only one hand or if that Bible was actually meant to be read in a cathedral,” he said.
“I like the idea that you could learn, not necessarily from text, from the written word, but from an artifact.”
However, the Internet is changing the way people buy and read books. With more and more people turning to electronic readers and perhaps more prominently to other types of media, actual printed book sales are declining.
Some used bookstores have tried to adapt to the changing business, but selling books online is time-consuming. David’s Books on William Street has begun to do most of its business over the web, but owner Ed Koster finds it much harder than selling in the store.
“It takes longer to deal with books now; you can’t just put them on the shelf and expect someone to come in within a week or two and buy it,” Koster said. “You’ve really got to list the thing online and you might get someone to buy it … you’ve got to pack the thing, ship the thing, all that.”
Gillmore has also experienced the negative effects of Internet shopping, but in a different way.
“The Internet has eliminated local scarcity,” he said. “It used to be that I would have the only copy of a certain book in Ann Arbor that anybody had seen for years, and I could charge whatever I wanted for it. The fact that I’ve got the only one in Ann Arbor no longer means anything, because all of the copies that are for sale all over the world are available all at once.”
To keep their walls stocked, used bookstores must constantly purchase books. For most, the majority of these come from customers bringing old books into the store to sell. But choosing and valuing books turns out to be a more complicated process than it seems.
“It’s such a vast decision-making process (that) I can think of no easy way to describe it,” Gillmore said.
But after so many years in the used-book business, Gillmore and his fellow Ann Arbor booksellers can often assess a book’s value on first glance.
“What one pays depends, obviously, a lot on the book,” Platt said. “Some books you think will sell very quickly you’re going to pay a higher percentage (of the selling price). And generally the more valuable the book is, the higher percentage you’ll pay for it.”
Shop owners consider the condition of the book, how well the book is made and who the author is.
“You learn after a while what authors are going to sell and what aren’t,” Koster said. “After so many years, you’re selling the same people over and over, you just don’t turn those down.”
There are several other ways to buy used or rare books, like estate sales, personal collections and public libraries. Some booksellers also attend antiquarian book fairs, where collectors and merchants gather to talk about and sell books. Platt attends eight to 10 book fairs every year — some as far away as Boston, where he says most of his more expensive books sell.
Platt also has hosted his own annual antiquarian book fair on campus for the last 33 years. The fair attracts booksellers from Ann Arbor and all over the Midwest each spring.
However, most of the action for those who sell used books still takes place in the store, and with a constant influx of books and tens of thousands to sort and maintain, it can be hard to keep track of everything.
Used bookstores are notorious for their lack of organization. It can be a nightmare finding the book you want, or even the section you want. But somehow the owners can pinpoint the location of almost every book in their stores.
“You tend to visualize where everything is,” Platt said. But it wasn’t always that easy for him: Platt recalled one of his first experiences in a used bookstore.
“I can remember this guy asking for some obscure title,” he said, “and the bookseller went up and found it right away, and I thought, ‘How did he do that? How did he know where the books were?’ Now I know.”
The magic of book browsing
That lost feeling, though, is actually part of the allure of a used bookstore. In the process of looking for a certain book, you discover another one.
“I suspect most of the books I sell are things people found but didn’t know they wanted, rather than books they came for specifically,” Gillmore said.
“You literally don’t know what you’re going to run into in a place like this,” he continued. “You don’t even know what section you’re going to be in in a place like this. You just wander around and see what catches your eye.”
Browsing, even browsing without the intention of buying, is something booksellers encourage, because the magic of finding something you weren’t looking for can mean much more than pre-meditated buying. It gives what Alvarez calls a “human component” to a purchase.
“There are many collectors who, they buy a book, they have a collection, but they want to tell a story about how they got that book. … Sometimes it is very fascinating how you find a book, just by being there browsing,” he said.
“I think there are still people who really enjoy that part: the hunting,” he added. “They enjoy more the hunting than the possession itself.”
Such serendipity, Platt said, is unique to used bookstores.
“A new bookstore is based on books that are just in print now,” Platt said, “whereas with a used bookstore, every book that’s ever been printed is a possibility. All the millions and millions of books that have ever been printed may turn up.”
Internet shopping similarly can’t provide this experience, Gillmore said.
“(Customers) like the accident of finding books they didn’t know existed,” he said. “You can’t look for books on the Internet if you don’t know they exist.”
But despite their charm, the future of used bookstores is uncertain and used booksellers are unsure of their staying power.
“I feel a little bit like a buggy-whip manufacturer in the time of Henry Ford,” Gillmore said. “I see it becoming more and more and more difficult.” His fellow used bookstore proprietors share his sentiments.
“It’s tough to make ends meet, and it could just get tougher and tougher until most (used bookstores) close,” Koster said.
“Every one or two weeks you read an article in the New York Times about the death of the book,” Alvarez said, though he doesn’t anticipate printed books dying out any time soon.
Gillmore is also confident about the future of print.
“There are two things that are going to make books survive. One of them is that a book’s operating system will never become obsolete. The other is that books are as much icons as they are things to read,” he said.
And in talking to these book appreciators, one begins to share their understanding that books can have value beyond just literary merit, or the simple transmission of ideas.
“Besides the text, there is something else,” Alvarez said. “There are more layers that you could discover in a book that in many ways takes you to historical moments.”
“Now, that world is kind of disappearing in many ways. … But I think there are still people, like me, who like to keep in touch with places and people.”
This idea of “keeping in touch with places and people” — of experiencing history — is embodied in used bookstores. And while the future of Ann Arbor’s used booksellers is uncertain, for the time being they are content to see where their businesses will go, as long as the books they love go with them and they can share the used book experience with their customers.