Thursday, February 9, 2012

Used Book Shop Weirdos

98% of used book store owners are weird. This is an exact percentage, I looked it up.

Like many writer-types, I worked at a couple different used book stores when I was younger, and no lie, it’s the cake-walk job of all cake-walk jobs. Customers would come in looking for some specific book and you’d take great pride in knowing EXACTLY what they were talking about and where on the shelves it was hidden (if you hadn’t already nabbed it for yourself). Sometimes you’d get some shmuck who wanted the latest literary atrocity by Mitch Albom or someone, and because you were young and snarky and judgmental in the way that only a young reader could be, you’d take great pains to insult them oh-so-subtly. I’m not proud of that behavior now, mind you, but I’d be lying if I said I was above it then.

Other times, you’d get a savvy reader looking for some rare first edition Joe Lansdale or David Goodis or Robert E. Howard, and there would follow an immediate bond. That customer would become a regular. Sometimes they’d stop in just to hang out and talk books.

When you weren’t helping customers (or making fun of them) you’d be buying books from walk-in sellers, or shelving them. And if you like books, those were both chores you didn’t mind. To this day, I enjoy re-arranging my book shelves at home sometimes, and sort of miss having a big store to do that in.

But back to my point: used book store owners. Yeah, they’re weird. The ones I worked for back in the day were weird, and the ones who own the stores I go to now are weird.

And weird in so many different ways. One store I stop in pretty frequently is run by this older guy who seems cranky and put-out by the mere existence of customers—whenever he’s asked a question, he heaves a world-weary sigh, forces himself from the behind the counter, and makes a big show out of showing exactly where the book is that the pesky customer is looking for. As long as you don’t engage him, he’s okay, though.

Another owner I know runs an over-priced little shop in a trendy town, and he’s meek beyond all reason. When you talk to him (usually interrupting his reading of the latest Chuck Palahniuk or James Franzen) he gets a deer-in-the-headlights look, scurries out like a little mouse and directs you right to the area you’re looking for. He won’t look you in the eyes.

One book shop in Kalamazoo is run by the gabbiest owner I’ve ever seen. When I told him I was visiting from Detroit, he started quizzing me on the city’s history, saying things like “Detroit was originally a French fort, wasn’t it?” or “Is it true 8 Mile is the great dividing line?” and then hanging on my answers as if the very future of Detroit depended on it.

Another place I go to is run by the quintessential cat lady. There are at least three cats running around the store, and you have to be careful not to step on them, as they tend to sneak up on you. And the owner just sort of stares at you the whole time you’re in there. Creepy.

Anyway, you get the idea. Browsing used book stores is still one of my favorite past-times, even when (especially when?) I’m not looking for anything in particular. I just wonder sometimes what it is about working with used books that attracts such social misfits. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that readers are such insular people, inward-looking for the most part. They’re more comfortable with fictional worlds and characters than they are with reality.
I can’t blame them. The real world is pretty much a giant drag of a place, after all.

Truthfully, if I ever run across a used book store owner who ISN’T a weirdo, I think I’d be disappointed.


  1. I once applied at a used bookstore. The owner wanted a cv. Snicker. The place is now closed.

  2. As weird as the customers and usually twice as gracious!

  3. Lou, that's SO true. I thought about adding some stuff about weird customers, too, but ran out of space.

  4. Stepping into most used-book stores is like stepping into another world...sometimes it feels like you're walking into an episode of the Twilight Zone.

    So we can look forward to a blog about the weird customers?! But you will change our names to protect us right?

  5. I've owned two used bookstores and worked at several others. You speak the truth.

  6. I'll do a post on weird customers very soon.

  7. That's so funny Heath! There was a used book store in my neighbourhood I used to frequent and I always thought the woman running it was a total creep. So angry, like I'd killed her cat or something. I was extra nice to her but never once did she crack a genuine smile, only grimace at me like she was passing a bladder stone. ha, ha!

  8. Oh yeah, I agree about that. Most of them are similar to the weirdos you will find in literature departments. They define themselves by their readings so much, that they have difficulties handling whatever is out of their tastes. They scoff if you name an author they don't know and they scoff if you don't know the authors they do, because the range of good tastes is exactly their choices.

    I used to be like that a little bit too, but I got better since.

  9. I am lucky enough to live in a town with four bookstores within easy walking/bus-ride distance from my house, not counting the ones associated with the university. I am feeling you here.