Feeling Bookish

It does my soul good to attend a used book sale.  I recently attended one while on a visit to Ithaca.  Everyone was wearing a mask.  Even though it was May, it was quite cold and rainy, and due to the limited number of people permitted in the space, there was a line that took about half an hour to endure.  This did not deter people and it was this that most lifted my spirits—these people were devoted to books.  At times when the media gets me down, informing me that book culture is dying and that all people want are their devices and their distractions, seeing proof of the love of books is restorative.  The used book sale is a place of discovery.

Although it’s easy to nip over to Amazon (or better, Bookshop.org) and order your book, especially during a pandemic, there are things you only find by being where the books are.  I keep an extensive reading list with me.  Before I go into a sale venue I promise myself I’ll stick to my list.  But what a facile promise it turns out to be—how can you make such a vow without knowing what you might find?  Books you’ve never seen or imagined before?  That’s the discovery aspect that sweetens the in-person experience.  And although I still find crowds scary, I tend to trust people who like books.  Besides, the books I tend to read aren’t always in the most popular sections.

The Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library book sale has a dedicated building with permanent shelving.  While wandering is fine, maps are also available.  I’m occasionally ribbed for having too many books.  One of the reasons I dread any move is knowing the movers’ inevitable comments about the fact.  People who love books are made to feel somehow inferior for it.  Fans of Kindle or other such readers extol the virtues of having lots of books that take up no space.  Such books, however, are limited to those converted to electronic form.  The many thousands of books published before the invention of the ebook, many of them out of print and mostly forgotten, can only be found in libraries, used bookstores, and sales like this.  (Google books hasn’t found everything yet.)  It was cold and rainy outside.  In here there were silent companions that speak loudly.  Books, as my daughter said, are like snacks for the mind.  And sometimes you just don’t know what you’re in the mood for until you go to the kitchen and browse.  It can warm your soul.

Book Culture

The book is not dead. Yesterday, on a warm, sunny spring day that veritably screamed “outdoors,” I found myself standing in line. I was at the Hunterdon County Libraries’ book sale. Having awoken in a panic a few weeks back gasping, “I missed the Bryn Mawr book sale!,” I made it a point to catch this one. You see, I read a lot of books on the bus. My job doesn’t pay very well, so I get inexpensive tomes where I can. And I wasn’t the only one in New Jersey sacrificing a rare, sunny weekend to look at books. I arrived twenty minutes before starting time and was well back in line. Although I seldom find items from my wish list, it always does me good to see so many people out for the purpose of literacy.


A book sale, like life, is like a box of chocolates. By far the majority of books here are publications vastly overprinted by excessively optimistic publishers. Of course, some people may buy books without the intent of keeping them, as difficult as that is for me to fathom. Since these are donations, it’s difficult to say much about how they reflect the taste of New Jersey readers. I couldn’t help but notice, however, as I wended my way to the religion table, that those who got there before me were racing through this particular table with a focus I can no longer muster, snapping up the gems, manically filling their bags. About the only other table where I saw that kind of passion was the science fiction section. I get overwhelmed in such environments. Too many titles, too close together, in only the loosest of orders (and sometimes very mis-categorized) can make for frustrated hunting. Nevertheless, I’m glad I marked my calendar.

The religion tables were mostly filled with predictable material that fails to challenge the intellect. Still, if it gets people reading, I have no cause for complaint. After about half an hour it was impossible to get through a single aisle without having to excuse myself a few times. Every subject, every category, had its readers. I was especially glad to see so many young people there. This may be the most hope for the future that I will see all year. Home with an aching shoulder and a supply to keep me going for forthcoming weeks, I notice the clouds drifting over what began as a glorious blue sky. No matter. If it rains, I will have plenty to do indoors. Resurrecting the mind from its slumbers is the most religious of all activities.

Take Twice Daily

Once in a way, when I feel a dusty archaism settling over me, and I realize my eyes don’t focus as well as they once did and that sedentary life in front of a computer screen is slowly killing me, I betake myself to a book sale. In this particular part of the country the big sales are in the spring. I’m told that the book business is dying, but if I can get out of a book sale with no bruises or scary brushes with over-eager buyers, I count myself lucky. I confess, I’m a bookaholic. I spend too many hours a week on public transit, and I consider it a moral obligation to read in public. Even in a city the size of New York, I’ve had people on the bus plop down next to me and say, “You’re that guy who reads.” Public displays of literacy. While some of the books I read are common enough, others are difficult to find in even university libraries. I know that’s an excuse, but my vice is buying books.

I once read a children’s story about a house actually constructed of books. I want that house. Although new books aren’t cheap, there are ways of making them fit into a modest budget. And although you really can’t build with them, they insulate the soul. Reading is more than fundamental—it is the very essence of learning. When I glance at Publisher’s Weekly and read that print sales aren’t what they used to be, I am buoyed by seeing the strong market in young adult literature. We have at least raised a generation that likes a good story. The earliest literature was religious, and many religions developed around written words. It’s a mistake to take religion for gullible belief. If there weren’t power in these words, why would anyone believe?

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Local book sales can be huge events. Each year Bryn Mawr and Wellesley have a combined book sale in Princeton. If you get there after opening, there will be no place to park. The libraries of Hunterdon County in New Jersey hold a sale that, until this year, required off-site parking and a full three days of hiring a shuttle bus service to get hundreds of buyers back to their cars. And these venues are packed. People do buy books. And many of them are half my age. It is a seed of hope. Some people are surely looking for a quick read, maybe to take on vacation, but you can also see the seasoned, selective literati carefully examining the offers, backs bent, brows furrowed. For twenty dollars you can even get in early, before the goods have been picked over. The man checking me out said the sale gets bigger every year. Looking out over the sea of cars, I feel strangely ebullient, as if I’m atop Nebo looking over the promised land. Although it’s quite a drive, I’m already home.