Old Book Stores

Bookstores have changed a lot since I was a kid, and used bookstores even more so. Today they are cleaner, nicer, much more expensive and, all too often, duller. That’s not to say there aren’t some great used bookstores. But the mood of the ‘new’ stores is….just not the same. The only bookstore I currently know of that has the tang of the bookstores of my youth is Acres of Books in Long Beach, Ca., especially that wonderfully dusty back room where the towering, sagging shelves are illuminated only by the feeble glow from the skylight. On a cloudy day, you needed a flashlight if you wanted to browse there. I haven’t even been there in ten years, so it may have closed up or moved, but it had that sense of MYSTERY that I associate with old volumes, whatever the subject may be. You never knew what odd treasure you might find on those shelves.

When I was growing up in Oklahoma City, back in the mid-to-late sixties, my friends and I would take the bus on Saturday down to Reno Street, which marked the southern edge of skid row; there were occasionally winos laying on the sidewalk, their favored drink, we were told, was called a Green Lizard, a mixture of hair tonic and alcohol. We roamed past the deserted Huckins Hotel, its facade crumbling like coarse bread, the planks over the windows weathered and rotting. Across the street was a decaying corner grocery store whose owner would never let us past the dark doorway unless we told him how much we were going to spend. Since we didn’t know what he had for sale , we never went in. But despite all this, we never felt we were in any danger. It was a sunnier time. But even if there had been some sense of foreboding (assuming a twelve year old could feel such a subtle emotion) I think we all would have still made our weekly trek, because skid row was where the bookstores were.

Our first stop was always Carters Bookstore. Despite two large plate glass windows facing the street, the light only penetrated a few feet into the room before the gloom fought it to a standstill. Old paper settling into dust filled the air, fell on the bins, marked your footprints on the floor – it is still one of my favorite smells in the world. Now Miz Carter was a formidable character, a chain smoker with a rasping accent I have never heard anywhere else to this day. She was a small woman, a bleached blond, friendly but leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that she could kick our collective asses without shaking the ash from her cigarette. From this distance I can’t tell for sure whether she was actually homely or just weathered with age, but she always dressed to the nines: dress, loads of cheap jewelry and that overdone style of makeup that is still pretty common here in Oklahoma. I saw my first Big Little Book at Carter’s, and my first pulp magazine when she bought a box of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures.

Next door was Hannah’s Used Books. It was a narrow wooden store front, painted yellow before I was born, about fifteen feet wide. Inside, the store went back maybe 30 feet, at which point a ragged curtain was drawn across the shop, about ten feet from the back wall. That was where Mr. Hannah lived. Bins ran along the outer walls, and a narrow table ran down the middle of the store beneath a single bare bulb.. When I reference cat pee, mold, other things in LIM, it’s Hannah’s store I’m recalling. He was a small, wiry man, favored short sleeve shirts that all seemed to be gray, and truly a cock-eyed optimist, friendly, but not in a creepy way. I can’t even speculate on why he was living like he did, but he never moped about it, even as he heated his can of Spaghettio’s on his hot plate.

And then there was Crazy Bill’s. His store was actually further up town, but there’s a kind of link with Hannah’s in my mind, only Bill ate his Spaghettio’s cold, right out of the can. I’m not sure he even bothered to sort the books on the shelves, and I know he didn’t sort the magazines because most of them were on the floor, stacks spilling into stacks so that you couldn’t move from shelf to shelf without stepping on them. He didn’t mind. He would be at his desk in the center of the store, red sauce dribbling down his chin, going on about whatever random topic had attracted his attention that day. In the event you don’t believe me, check out this article on “The World’s Most Dangerous Bookstore.” That’s Crazy Bill.

Back downtown, in an alley behind another hotel, was A Points North, Mr. North was fussy and prim, Edward Everett Horton with an attitude. He had a curious limp that caused one foot to slap the floor when he walked and the rumor was that it was caused by syphilis. Once, when I asked him if he had any comic books, he told me in no uncertain terms, “Γ don’t deal in trash” .(This was the mid-sixties, when comic fandom was just starting to break out.)

All those stores are gone now, the buildings torn down for urban renewal; the store owners are gone to their reward as well. I have to say I miss them. They were all eccentrics, and maybe that is what I find so disagreeable in the local Book Rack or Paperback Shack, usually located in malls, manned by well-meaning but featureless men and women, the air scented with Glade, or worse, incense. I guess I miss the cat pee and the mold.

And the Mystery.

^ 16 Comments...

  1. Eric

    The only way I can relate is maybe Gardner’s Used Books and Music in Tulsa… But mostly I think of the bookstore in the beginning of the movie, The Never Ending Story. The new pages look great btw… only you seemed to have somehow made several posts of the same page (I had to click “Previous” a few times to get to the actual previous page).

  2. Myke

    Man, great story. It’s things like this that make me happy to consider myself a writer. Not sure why, but that old book smell just rejuvenates my desire to have books on the shelves.

  3. Bookgasm

    Hey, is this the Crazy Bill’s you’re talking about?
    http://www.bookgasm.com/reviews/humor/the-worlds-most-dangerous-bookstore

    Yep, that’s the one. I’m surprised to hear he was in business as late as 1996! Thanks for the link.

  4. urinnyGuccedy

    Hello, I can’t understand how to add your blog ( lovecraftismissing.com ) in my rss reader

  5. Don Simpson

    Long ago, around the beginning of the 60s, I discovered a bookstore near skid row in Los Angeles, Dahl’s Books. Inside, besides the usual bookstore stuff, it had a 20-foot-high ceiling, and a narrow staircase that went up to a room that was over the window display area in front. There was a big sign over that small room’s door, reading: “The Strange High House in the Dust”. Yes, Mr. Dahl was a Lovecraft fan, and the Arkham House and occult books were up there. He said he was looking for the right Arabic book to have re-bound as Al Azif….

  6. Profpep

    Loving the comic. I used to go in a unique bookstore in Bath, UK. A huge cellar place owned by a very academical old lady. Once, when I was on my Gothic Novel kick, I asked if she had anything in that vein. She produced a copy of ‘The Monk’ by Matthew Gregory Lewis, (mentioned in Lovecraft’s essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature – I was using that as a partial reading list), 2nd edition, leather bound, with hand cut page edges. Sadly it was out of my price range. Never found out what her speciality was; she could reference specialist math texts and French literature with equal facility.

  7. lovecraf

    Dang, I didn’t move to L.A. until 1976! Sounds like the perfect store, location and all. Don’t you wish we’d have had the presence of mind to take pictures of some of these places?

  8. idjster

    I wonder if used book stores and their owners are cut from the same genetic and creative cloth. Your recollections of the stores where you grew up are so similar to mine, only the names of the stores and individuals are changed. There’s not a lot of money in used books, always way more books than demand for them, but the people involved in the stores are always so unique and…different.

    Nice post.

  9. tatteredking

    The bookstore I haunted when I was a kid was a small place. I can’t actually remember where it was in the city near where I grew up, but I may have to go back and wander the streets looking for it. It wasn’t a used book store, and strangely enough, the Dungeons and Dragons stuff was smack dab in the front window.

    I think that is the place that I learned to love books. It wasn’t the dark dusty bookstore that you refer to, but I still to this day will turn into the independant book store and the used book store, even just to peruse, rather than the box stores. Yeah it’s nice to be able to go in and find exactly what you want within minutes, but it’s not the same.

  10. Dumb post

    One is fortunate (or “guided”, as some of the other customers would put it) in living close to Denmarks last proper occult bookstore, “Filosofisk Boghandel”
    http://www.filosofiskboghandel.dk/
    all the others are now entirely devoted to alternative “medicine”.

  11. Martin

    One of the reasons for change is the rise of those “evil” scanners. My wife helps out with the used book sale at the local library. One of the things they do is scan each and every book with this scanner that I assume comes from some local book dealer. Anything that scans above a certain price goes straight to him (her?). I assume all modern book dealers use them?

    It means you only find books that are personally valuable rather than financially valuable at library book sales. (The only mystery of them is why so many romance paperbacks get printed)

  12. Mgnostic

    There was a cool old used bookstore in OKC during the 80′s. As I recall it was just west of the downtown area. I keep thinking it was called “Shoults Bookstore” but that could be way off. It was in an old store front. I remember walking under the cross braces that kept the shelves from tipping into one another.

  13. lovecraf

    I remember that bookstore but under a different name which escapes me now. the owner originally had a shop across the street from the old Opubco building further up Broadway, then moved over to main street later on. I’ll think of the name, but yeah, towering tipping shelves of paperbacks. He was getting along in years, and must have sold it.

  14. juicetin

    It makes me of my favorite junk antique store, “The Collection Box in Charleston, SC run by a lovely eccentric. Lots of antique books for cheap but not too many that spark my interest. The fear of avalanche, however, is heightened by objects sharper and heavier than books and mags. Always a thrilling adventure.

  15. The old used bookstores « TENTACLII :: H.P. Lovecraft blog

    [...] is Missing‘s polished evocation of those old used bookstores that don’t seem to exist any more… “All those stores are gone now, the buildings [...]

  16. Dumb post

    Mind you, theres always
    http://www.violetbooks.com/