Free Reading

I think I was driving through Montclair, New Jersey when I first noticed one.  A “little free library” in someone’s front yard.  Then I began to notice them around elsewhere.  Neat little outdoor kiosks filled with books.  Despite my love of literacy I’m not inclined to take books from such places.  For one thing my reading tastes are odd, and for another I want other people to catch the interest in reading.  And “free” is a great motivator.  The idea is simple: set up a little free library on your property, seed it with books, and watch it work.  People are encouraged to take what’s there for free.  And leave books they want to donate, if so inclined.  Now that we’re in Pennsylvania we discovered one in a nearby park.  A community feels more homey with books.

Searching for the concept online, I came to LittleFreeLibrary.org.  I’m not sure if they started the trend, but it provides the basic idea.  They even have plans for how to build your own and get your neighborhood reading.  If anyone wants a clue for making America great, here’s a free hint: it will involve books.  They’re a commodity unlike any other.  Mass-produced (often too enthusiastically so) they are generally inexpensive and can be used over and over again.  One of the biggest headaches for publishers is the used book market—since a book is a handful of ideas, once they’re released they’re difficult to control.  They can be sold again for less than market value, and yes, even given away.  Those who read see the value in giveaways, even if there’s no personal profit in it.

Early in our tenure here we decided to take a book to donate each time we go to the park.  Sometimes we forget, of course.  Our first donation was there for two weeks, but then found a new home.  A strange kind of joy accompanied finding the book gone.  Perhaps we’d done some good simply by opening a door and leaving something we were no longer using.  Then something unexpected happened—I saw a book from my reading list in the local.  Should I take it?  I have a list of books to seek in used bookstores, for, to the chagrin of my own industry, I participate in the used book market.  I had been looking for this tome for a few years, reluctant to pay full market value since it has been around since the sixties.  In the end I couldn’t resist.  Next week, I told myself, I’ll take two books to give back.  Literacy’s that way—it’s something even introverts can share.

Private Browsing

Montclair, New Jersey, is a diverting place. At least it is for me. I used to teach—strictly as an adjunct of course—at Montclair State University. And like many other diverting towns, Montclair has multiple bookstores. On the occasions my wife has to spend a Saturday working in Montclair I often accompany her. If the weather is decent I can walk to both bookstores and have a leisurely browse. Since anything leisurely is rare these days, I eagerly anticipate such trips. Typically I’ll sit in my wife’s work place counting off the minutes until I can leave to get to the Montclair Book Center just as it opens. Used bookstores are a bit like archaeology—you never know what you’ll find, and some of the treasures may be unique. I often have the store mostly to myself, for private browsing.

This time, however, I had another task to accomplish first, before I could go to the first bookstore. By the time I arrived, it had been open for over an hour and there were, surprisingly, plenty of people there. We’re accustomed to hearing that people no longer care for books. While it’s true they won’t bring in the numbers of, say, those wanting the latest video game, it’s also true that on a pleasant Saturday morning an independent bookstore can be a crowded place. It warmed my heart to see so many readers out. And they weren’t all old like me. Younger people talking about the merits of this or that author, browsing in the sections I frequently haunt. Although I found none of the books on my list, I still had that blessed feeling you have when you discover you’re not really alone.

The other store, Watchung Booksellers, is a couple miles to the north, at least by the walking route I use. A small indie, it typically has what modern-day people might be expected to be interested in. I arrived to find it crowded as well. I’ve been there a number of times in the past and usually there are two or three others browsing. This time it was actually a little difficult to get around the small space. Seeing children there made me especially glad. A crowded bookstore is a sign of hope. As we struggle against the forces of ignorance and hatred that seem to have gripped the privileged classes, Saturdays at bookstores doing brisk business are an indication that the future may correct such ill-informed sentiments. Bookstores are termometers of national health, and seeing them busy made my Saturday. It’s worth getting up early just to spend such a day in Montclair.

Surface Tension

Montclair, New Jersey, is distinguished by having two bookstores. On Saturdays when my wife has to work there, I sometimes come along. Apart from the pleasant company, it isn’t every day that one can visit two bookstores. By supporting such shops, I am protesting the ignorance rampant in this nation. One, the Montclair Book Center, specializes in used books. Not always competitively priced, I nevertheless seldom leave empty-handed. It’s a healthy walk from there to Watchung Booksellers, a compact indie up by the train station. For a small store they always have an intriguing selection and I’ve never seen it empty on a Saturday. As I was walking the distance between the two, I noticed that Montclair’s downtown (and I’m not picking on Montclair, which I love) focuses on appearances. This is true of almost all shopping malls as well. Salons, clothing stores, eating places, tattoo parlors, health clubs. Places you go to help hone your image. Where are the stores catering to the mind?

Don’t get me wrong, I also have a body. I like to keep healthy too. I jog when I can, and I’m a vegetarian of nearly twenty years. Yes, there are the necessary places like drug stores and specialty shops where you can get your vacuum cleaner repaired, but few places to go explicitly to encourage mental growth. Hot, I stopped into a coffee shop for a bottle of juice. Patrons were busy at their phones and laptops. I recalled how there was a time when intellectuals hung out and conversed in coffee shops, exchanging ideas over mugs long grown cold. Even those sitting outside on the sociable, colorful chairs were busy texting, Instagramming, or tweeting away their weekends. I closed my book and walked on. I felt a vague but pressing need for intellectual engagement. I headed to the second bookstore.

On the way home one of those industrial-sized lawn-care vendors cut us off on the highway. Lawn-care is big business around here. It’s all about appearances. What has happened to the life of the mind? Allow me my curmudgeonly years—I recall walking downtown as a child and seeing the office supply store with actual paper, smoke-shops with their abundant magazines and wire spinner racks full of questionable paperbacks, and even the Christian bookstore with its tracts and Bibles. I didn’t have the benefit of living in a university town, but people I saw were talking to one another. Exchanging ideas with someone actually present. Self-consciously I look down. I’ve had these cargo pants for many years. This shirt I’m wearing I purchased in Wisconsin in another decade. Even these shoes haven’t been replaced after all these miles. This hat on my head is almost older than my college-graduate child. I can’t be bothered with my appearance right now, though, because there’s another bookstore just ahead.

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.