THE BLOG
08/26/2013 06:16 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2013

Strategies for Bringing the Used Bookstore Into the 20th (sic) Century

I believe used bookstores are an indicator of a city's health. Proof? Under Mayor Bloomberg, the number of second-hand shops in New York has quadrupled. That isn't true, but feels like it could be. Used stores are at least as reliable a pointer to urban vitality as miles of bike path or number of graduate schools a city can claim, or from analyses of public attitudes to graffiti, where smart cities are defined by progressive crowds of Instagramming admirers, whereas plucky but misguided neighborhood volunteers who band together intent on washing off the spray-paint are deemed to be in Detroit.

I don't have to prove to anyone my used book chops. I once spent hours in a car trying to find Hay-on-Wye ('town of books') in Wales, confused perhaps by the signage: on crossing the frontier from England, Welsh public works had dispensed with 'Hay-on-Wye' and motorists were suddenly greeted with routes and distances to 'Y Gelli', which we eventually learned was not the name of a popular recreational lubricant but the Welsh name for H-o-W. The point is, I made it.

For lovers of second-hand books, Hay-on-Wye is like Woodbury Common run by the Tudors, as if Berkshire Hathaway purchased the Library of Congress, broke it up and sold it off in a sidewalk sale. Bill Clinton once called H-o-W "Woodstock for the Mind." And who knows more about 'Woodstocks for the insert word here'?

I shopped Hay's cobbled streets well before the oxymoronic-sounding 'bookstore tourism' got its own Wikipedia entry. But even then, it had the atmosphere of Filene's bridal, only with people rushing to try on Voltaire instead of Vera Wang. Young antiquarians pushing aside old antiquarians, shelf-reading for their acid-free soul mate. I became giddy in the surging crowd of bibliophiles, eventually overplaying my hand for a virtually unintelligible, sway-backed 1919 autobiography of Admiral Lord Fisher. The note of impending panic had been stoked as we passed through the Brecon Beacons: when we stopped for lunch at my cousin's favourite Tudor-style pub we discovered his favorite 'real ale' had been replaced by an Australian, and that the kitchen was out of Yorkshire pudding. It seemed to signal we had to hurry, get what we could.

Superstores like The Strand in NY are fine but my favorites are second-hand shops beneath walk-up apartments, a bodega next store, a rep cinema within a block, and with a prickly name like 'Malapropism'. Though diverse, used bookstores share common traits, visible in tell-tale details. For example, there's not just a section on Noam Chomsky, but a labelled section on Chomsky. Management pedantically shelves Murakami under 'H 'for 'Haruki' or 'R' for 'Ryu', potentially losing customers searching for Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The philosophy here is that it is better to be right than profitable. (Welsh road crews share a similar worldview.) There is also 'Eastern Thought', which does not refer to having a clue at the Jersey Shore. In fact there is nowhere a "Summer Beach Reading!" display table. Second-hand book clients do not remove their shirts.

Somewhere in the store is an overweight cat, often named for an obscure character in fiction. Unlike in a chain bookstore, no one can claim this cat is utilitarian, a service animal. It would be a stretch to say it was even clean.

There is a small step-ladder hidden in a corner on which, for hours at a time, is curled in the fetus position a heroin-thin young woman clutching a Swiffer. Later it turns out she is supposed to be re-positioning the store's dust balls, but her excuse that 'this William Vollman tome was blowing my mind' is accepted as valid stacks-slacking excuse. She's an idealist who would never work at Cinnabon, or Mrs. Field's. Cookie-cutters are too cookie-cutter. That barista won't brew.

In a used store, background music is the owner's personal mix of contemporary scratchy-whiny alternative rock, Senegalese jazz, and Billie Holiday. (Unlike the endless loop of Amy Grant's Baby, Baby, ordered by corporate to be playing simultaneously in all 675 Barnes &Nobles.) The owner sits on a high stool near the front, tapping his broken sandal in time to his music. He slowly records book purchases in a ring notebook as if copying out Fermat's Last Theorem. He spends most of the time himself reading, which is a good sign, if poor security policy. He runs his fingers through his beard while he turns the pages, in his vintage clothing looking like Don Draper the day after an all-night bender, hung over while he golfs with clients. Though he (the owner) doesn't have cable.

The stores are over-stuffed with books. Unlike B&N, shelf space isn't steadily retreating like an ebb tide in the face of greeting cards, tote bags, pewter candlestick holders. There is no high-counter station selling e-readers, where blue-shirted/khaki salespeople appear to have awoken a Best Buy sleeper cell that is now busy consuming the store from within.

In a used bookstore, there are few titles about making a fortune, going from good to great, awakening giants within, or copying the habits of highly successful people. These topics would not appeal to the customers who browse while still wearing their bike helmets, making notes to themselves on bits of paper, or the customer at the cash idly discussing with the store owner how much more vacation working people get in France. No, this is where people matriculate to when they're done with the comic book store. The dark past, inner conflict and array of personal failings are no longer just the back story for Spiderman -- it's your life. But unlike Thor, you do not go out at night, nor do you have powers, super or otherwise. Which is why you seek Noam Chomsky in the first place.

Enhancing the customer experience
I appreciate that used bookstores are owner-operated, de-centralized like al Qaeda. But they seem to be similarly lacking in leadership and good p.r. No one is expecting a pixie-cut Meg Ryan from the little shop around the corner. But a makeover of some kind is needed. Used stores need to compete, even if this is not in harmony with Eastern Thought. Spend 10 minutes in a used store and you say to yourself "How can they afford the rent?" Since I typically spend multiples of 10 minutes in my used favourite store at any one time, I've had time to come up with some strategies. Some won't work. For example, "Used Book Store" is too cumbersome a musical title for Macklemore to do the wonders he did for Goodwill.

My suggestions center instead on the customer experience. Used staff are invariably pissed off when you enter their premises: you've interrupted them while their nose is stuck into David Foster Wallace, and their spirits are not cheered, there is no connection made, from the fact you yourself are looking for David Foster Wallace. Instead of a place of work, they seem to think they're in the Amtrak Quiet Car.

  1. Stealing a line from BMW, 'used' should be dropped in favour of 'pre-owned'. While kicking the tires on a sleek stainless silver DeLillo from the '80s, the store owner could be looking over your shoulder and saying things like "Oh yeah, she's a beaut. You've got good taste. Previous owner of that there number? I put him into the 2012 MAN Booker winner; his wife into an Orange Prize long-listed baby."
  2. Lifting an entire page from Walmart, stores need nice elderly retired people at the entrance, as greeters. Both Alice Munro and Philip Roth recently retired from writing -- they'd be ideal, and might appreciate the work. "Hot enough for you?" they'd call out as you step through the doors and into the fresh breeze of incense. OK, maybe Philip Roth wouldn't say this. But Alice Munro might. Alternatively, a Book Butler, modeled perhaps on Lee Daniels/Carson from Downton Abbey, who would hand you your shopping basket and a gin-and-tonic as you entered.
  3. Still with the greeters. The hand-scrawled note at the front of the store, "Cash Only!", pretty much sums up most used bookstores' attitudes to technology like PayPass, mobile payment apps, or electricity. But perhaps in a Great Leap Forward used bookstores could band together and demand one of those talking holograms, like the life-sized, chipper young avatar-woman at Newark Liberty Airport departures, who directs passengers to their cancelled flights. Since it's a hologram, stores could choose any author, past or present, as incarnation. Who wouldn't want to walk into a used bookstore and be greeted by a Tolstoy or Proust, kvetching about their pneumonia symptoms, standing on their feet all day and the lack of healthcare with this job, barking into Google Translate voice-recognition in order to direct you to the Noam Chomsky section?
  4. Used stores are already selling through Amazon and e-Bay. Good. But they also need their own e-reader. Aesthetically, it could look like it was assembled from parts of an old untreated wooden packing crate, similar to the shelves and furniture seen in most used book stores. Prices for downloads could appear in tiny cursive pencil marks, sometimes crossed out and lowered by a dollar. The device would be named for a cat in literature, maybe 'The Crookshanks.'

In the few years since Hay, I've occasionally opened my Admiral Fisher autobio. I chuckle at the publisher's blurb: "...Lord Fisher has small faith in the printed word." In this case, it shows. But the honesty is appreciated. Can you imagine this kind of blunt-force statement appearing on the dust-jacket of a 2013 book? Plus, Fisher has the occasional prescient passage like this, which predicts, in order of importance, 1) the popularity of layering, pre-Columbia Sportswear fleece, 2) the Chandler Byng Sweater-Vest Craze, and 3) the Rise of China. "His (Lord Kelvin's) theory was that it was much warmer wearing many thin vests than one thick one, as the interstices of one were filled up by the next one, and so on....as I sat one day at lunch next to the Emperor of Russia, he asked me to explain my youth and good health, and I hoped that he would follow Lord Kelvin's example, as I did. Lord Kelvin got this idea of a number of thin vests instead of one thick one from the Chinese, who, in many ways, are our superiors." Y Gelli for Underclothes.