Used Bookends

There’s nothing like spending a Saturday in a bookstore. It is actually a rare treat these days with Borders gone and some of the smaller indies having trouble keeping up. I particularly like used bookstores. Unlike most durable goods, books—at least some of them—grow in character with renewed ownership. Like most academics, I have books that had previously been owned by big names in the field. Sometimes because I was a student of one of their students, at other times because their library went for sale and I found the tome in a second-hand shop. A few years back I had to go to Boston for work, and I stopped at the Boston Book Annex only to find it closed. It’s sad when even a used bookstore can’t keep up.

So when my wife told me she had to work on Saturday, and it was in Montclair, my thoughts turned to the Montclair Book Center. It isn’t the largest bookstore around, but it does have used books and it is a healthy walk from my wife’s office. I never go planning to spend much, but being in a bookstore, you see things you didn’t know existed. When the staff comes up to ask if they can help me find anything I just smile and say, “No thanks, I just want to browse.” Maybe it’s because I have no idea what I’m looking for. I’ll know it when I see it.

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I used to visit the Cranbury Bookworm. In a sprawling old house outside Princeton, I often found pleasant, used surprises there. Then the landlord evicted them. They sold off most of their stock and moved to a closet down the street. Even though it’s tiny, there are always others there. I’m never alone in a bookstore. Other patrons feel the draw. I wonder if everyone who reads doesn’t owe a debt of obligation to stop into their local bookstore and pitch in. I grew up in a town without any bookstores at all. The nearest one I knew of was thirty miles away. I know what it is to be book-deprived. It’s Saturday, and a little too cold to spend much time outdoors. It’s probably just an excuse, but you’ll find me in the bookstore nevertheless.

Old Curiosity Shop

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to live in New Jersey eight years without discovering the Old Book Shop in Morristown. Used books represent the opportunity to find things otherwise hidden away, even often from the all-seeing internet. That’s why I visit book sales at any opportunity, and haunt used bookstores. The Cranbury Bookworm, never easy to reach, was denuded of its glory by a greedy landlord and has only a few shelves remaining in a much diminished location. The Montclair Book Center takes a concerted bit of driving from here, but I always enjoy it when I go. Over the weekend, however, the Old Book Shop was my destination. Although it’s not a large space, the books on display are reasonably priced and represent intelligent collecting. I found a book or two on my wish list there, and many more that, were I in a more lucrative line of work, would have come home with me.

One book my daughter found in the science section, Ecce Coelum; or Parish Astronomy, by a Connecticut Pastor, was clearly from the days when science and religion got along better together. A little research revealed the author as Enoch Fitch Burr. What really caught my eye was the dedication, “lectures on astronomy in the interest of religion.” I’m not sure how I managed to leave that book behind, in retrospect. As a layman both in science in religion terms, I have had lifelong interests in both. It’s only been within the last couple of decades that I’ve noticed a growing tension between the siblings. Like all childhood fights, it is a contested matter of who started it. It does trace its roots back to Galileo and Bruno, but more recently to the Creationists and their never-ending campaigns to have their religion christened science. Back when Ecce Coelum was written, science and religion had much to learn from one another.

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Now they no longer speak. Those who believe all answers lie in material explanations treat religion as a mental disease. The conservative religionists call the scientists atheists, as if that were still an insult. Name calling and bad feelings, I don’t believe, will ever lead to the truth. The science of today will eventually find its way into the used bookstores of tomorrow. Religion books have long lined these shelves, reminding me of the day when she was the queen of sciences. She’s often treated as the jester these days. What scientist now declares, “behold the heavens!”? We might actually benefit to a great degree if both the empirical and the ecclesiastical would behold their world with a little more wonder. And tomorrow’s readers will puzzle at our strange hardness of heart.

All Booked Up

I remember places by books. Perhaps it is a sickness, but it is a wonderful illness—I love being surrounded by books. When I travel to a new place, a book often serves as a souvenir, as I recall where I discovered a certain title and decided that I want to own it. Of course, independent bookstores are rare and becoming rarer. Who can remember which Barnes and Noble was which? The loss of independent bookstores is a sign of culture collapsing, at least ideologically. Being surrounded by LED screens is just not the same. The viewing goes both ways. Some towns I associate primarily with their bookstores. Over a recent weekend I visited Cranbury, New Jersey for the first time in many months. Apart from its utterly charming, historic downtown, Cranbury is the home of The Cranbury Bookworm, one of my favorite used book stores. My optimism fell under a cloud when I saw the storefront empty. Suddenly, the compelling draw of this quaint town was somehow diminished. My wife and I walked down another block, and I was somewhat revived to see that the Bookworm had merely moved.

Of course, the new location was much smaller. I heard the cashier telling another customer that they had been forced to move and had kept only twenty percent of their stock. So much was clear from my own browsing. My past visits had been perhaps a little too imprudent, but I often walked out with an armload of happiness. This time I purchased a couple of inexpensive paperbacks out of a sense of duty. I support used bookstores in principle. I have had people tell me that we have too many books for the amount of space we can afford to rent. Some people regularly recommend a purge. In a world where finding a comfortable place to be encased by books is increasingly difficult, I have come to regret some of the treasures I’ve given away, or sold, over the years. If I can’t find a sanctuary for books, I shall have to make one. For those who never learned the rapture of reading, it is difficult to explain. I have a phobia of booklessness.

Photo credit: CillanXC. I miss Borders.

Photo credit: CillanXC. I miss Borders.

Even this thing we call religion began, fairly early, as an expression in writing. After people invented writing as a way of keeping receipts, they began recording religious texts. Eventually a Bible. Religious books proliferated. It may seem counter-intuitive, but even today Christian books make up a huge market, no matter how much head-shaking goes on by those who seek only secular lucre. Religion and books often go together, but even when our published parcels take a profane track, they remain lovable. They are more than texts—they are memories. One of my advisors along my academic path inscribed each book with his name, the place he bought it, and the date. Perhaps he infected me with the books-as-souvenirs idea. If he did, I thank him. And I will continue the elusive quest for the bookstore where I might pass a happy hour or two on an autumn weekend.