Friday's Favs

(Note: every Friday I'll post a favorite rant from the archives)

from March 25, 2009

Used Book Smart

If I didn't have a wife, a daughter, and the need to earn a living, I believe I could survive with two things: a used bookstore, and a bathroom. And maybe a chair. But don't go searching for one on my account.

I have a thing for used bookstores. Seriously. Some folks, when they arrive in a new town, seek out a cool bar or a trendy restaurant. Or a copy of USA Today. I go looking for the nearest used bookstore.

Oh, I've done that -- so don't go calling me a liar. I've done it in St. Louis, New York, and Chicago. And I'd do it in Peoria and Fort Myers and Altoona, if I ever found myself in those burgs.

It's daycare for me. If you ever need to ditch me while you go off with other, more exciting people -- like, say, for a week or two -- then simply drop me at the steps of the nearest used bookstore and have yourself a great time in my absence.

But I'm warning you -- I'll fight you to the death when it's time for me to leave.

I don't even know when I became fascinated with the musty smell and the creaky floorboards and the creepy cat who roams around amongst the shelves and customers' feet. Not sure when I took to the soft, classical music playing on the sound system. But I think it was in college.

I attended Eastern Michigan University, a school whose biggest amenity -- but don't tell the Board of Regents this -- was its close proximity to Ann Arbor. And Ann Arbor has itself some marvelous used bookstores. So it probably all started there, circa 1981.

The used bookstore comes in all shapes and sizes.

I've been to the cozy ones, typically occupying the upstairs floor of a two-story building in town. With their narrow, claustrophobic aisles -- the kind where your back grazes the books behind you as you browse. I've been to the well-lit, open-spaced ones; usually those types occupy an out-of-business retail space in a strip mall. And I've been to most every other kind in between.

But nothing -- and I mean NOTHING -- prepared me for what lie in store for me at John King Books in downtown Detroit.

First off, the store is located in a four-story building. Correction: the store IS a four-story building. Yeah.

And each floor is big. I mean, huge. With all the shelves and counters and display chests, you could hide out there for days and I don't think John would know you were even there. I used to wonder whether they ever closed up shop and left customers inside, unknowingly. Then, after several visits, I began wondering how MANY customers they left inside. Forget the "if".

I used to spend lunch hours in King's store when I worked in Detroit and had the occasion to find myself downtown due to business. No, I never ate.

First off, how was I going to hold my food, with both hands occupying books?

Second, who can eat at a time like that, anyway?

I'm a mystery guy, first and foremost. That's the section I head straight for in any store I happen upon. I'm a sucker for the small, pulp-style paperbacks that fill that section. Sometimes I like to just pick up one of those "pocket books" and look at it, wondering thru how many hands it's passed.

Then it's off to the movies/TV section, to check out the coffee table books with titles like The History of Paramount or Film Noir. Those are picture books, essentially; large, thick books with tons of photos and with text that amounts to mainly captions.

Sports, of course, gets a once-over. Same with history.

Once, at King's store, I bought a book on how to best pack and smoke a pipe. It didn't really have anything that I didn't already know (I'm a closet pipe smoker; that is, until this very moment, I guess), but I was drawn to its style of writing: very sophisticated and obviously trying to appeal to the men of high society. I think it was written in the 1950s.

King has another, smaller version, located in Ferndale. Spent hours there, too.

A couple weeks ago, my wife (who likes them too but knows when to leave) introduced me to a store in Clawson that she enjoys and exchanges books with. It was a nifty little place, at the end of a short strip of retail. I bought a detective novel. She went for a few romances.

I get a kick out of the employees. I don't think I've ever been in a used bookstore where the person behind the register (and that's where they plant themselves and don't move) wasn't: a) older than 50; and b) a candidate for a Diane Arbus photo shoot. Sorry for the obscure Arbus reference, but Google her and you'll get it.

But they're friendly folks, the cash register sitters. They say hi to you when you walk in, and say bye to you when you leave, and they don't seem to mind it if you've just spent a couple hours browsing and didn't buy anything.

They don't even sic the cat on you.


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