Despite America’s relative youth when compared to such countries as Great Britain, Italy, China, and Japan, repositories of the past abound in the United States.
Even small towns offer visible displays of the pride they take in the past. Here in Front Royal, Virginia, where I’ve lived for the past six years, the courthouse lawn features statues and memorials dedicated to local citizens who fought in our nation’s wars. The Belle Boyd House preserves memorabilia once owned by that famous Confederate spy. The Virginia Beer Museum, which is also a bar, provides visitors with a glimpse of the state’s brewing history, and tourists may take a self-guided tour of the battles fought in this area during the Civil War.
And then there are used bookshops.
Emporiums of Culture and TraditionOf course, nearly all bookstores, whether part of a chain or independent, qualify as conveyors of culture. In the two Barnes & Noble stores in Asheville, North Carolina, where I once lived, you’ll find classic works as well as this season’s bestsellers. The same holds true for Malaprop's, the popular independent shop catering to the city’s progressive crowd.
In the same city are a number of secondhand bookshops, each with a different flavor and feel. The Battery Park Book Exchange, for instance, which is located near the downtown’s Grove Arcade, is noted for serving up wine, champagne, and other beverages along with two floors of used books. Within an easy walk of my apartment, this place became my home away from home, my go-to spot every time I strolled into the city. South of town is Mr. K’s Used Books, part of a chain of secondhand shops. It was my destination when I was in a serious browsing mood or looking for a boxful of gifts for the grandkids.
Offering Magic TimeLike the lepidopterist stalking the meadow for butterflies or the archaeologist sifting through sand in hopes of uncovering a button or a coin, the bibliophile enters the used bookshop with a leap of the heart, alive to the beauty and wonder of possibility. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” never found more stalwart adherents. The mother of the toddler who finds a beloved book of verse from her own childhood and the Dorothy Sayers’s fan who snags a copy of “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club” both leave that shop feeling as if they’d struck gold.
The thrill of this chase offers two other great pleasures. First is the accidental discovery of books you’ve forgotten that you’ve missed. Years ago, at a fundraising sale at Grace Episcopal Church in Waynesville, North Carolina, for a few dollars I picked up about 30 of the “Childhood of Famous Americans” series, not the newer editions, but the old ones bound in blue or orange covers and illustrated with shadow pictures. That unforeseen find sent me tumbling back into my boyhood and also propelled me into the future, when I contemplated sharing these treasures with my grandchildren.
The second pleasure has to do with cost. That sought-after volume purchased at a bargain basement price leaves the buyer feeling clever, smug, and walking on air. Here in Front Royal, for instance, our library’s tiny secondhand store sponsors a special sale of overstocked books from time to time.
Three years ago, while browsing the tables of books set up for this event, I found a complete set of Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume “The Story of Civilization” topped by a notecard marked $3. Certain that this tag was the price per volume, which was a bargain, I asked the cashier about the cost, who informed me that the entire set was going for three bucks. Though I had my own set at home, I plunked down a fiver, told her to keep the change for the library, and staggered away with the books in a box, which I later presented as a Christmas gift to a friend who’s a history buff.
While a yard sale or a library sale are special occasions, a used bookstore daily offers readers this romp through our culture.
The Blue Plate Special
Blue Plate is part of a strip shopping mall with an unimpressive exterior, though a large sign announces its wares. Judging from this façade, one might easily conclude that we’ll be disappointed.
But you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, as the saying goes, and once we push through the front door, we find ourselves in a perfect jewelry box of a shop—tidy, clean, well-lit, and with some soft piano music in the background. Here we find a maze of 20 or more hideaways and cubicles, created by shelves of books, most of them floor to ceiling, with the books themselves categorized by genre, alphabetized by author, and standing in ranks like grenadiers.
Meet the Friendly Staff
And the staff is as welcoming as the shop itself. Greg, a retired Navy captain who works here part time, mostly from his love of the printed word, fills me in on some details of the business: 65,000 volumes in stock (the website states 75,000) and all genres of literature except romance.
“When Blue Plate opened 15 years ago,” he explains, “there was a shop selling romance novels nearby, and Pat didn’t want to hurt her business with competition.” The author of that gallant act, owner Pat Saine, is away this week on vacation.
Christine, another part-timer, will be entering the University of Virginia this week, and as we spoke, we realized that she’d gone to secondary school for a couple of years with my oldest grandson.
Noelle Schoeman, the young manager, is a native of South Africa whose parents immigrated to the United States in 2003. When she arrived in America, she spoke no English, and in learning our language, which she speaks flawlessly, she fell in love with reading and books, and is in particular a fan of the fantasy genre. She hopes one day to become a gynecologist.
Our successful expedition ends with a bit of lagniappe on my arrival home. On the recommendation of a friend, I purchased a copy of Stella Gibbons’s “Cold Comfort Farm.” As I riffled through the pages at my dining room table, I discovered one of those extra bonuses proffered by a used book: an inscription. “To Mary from Gary M.,” this note proclaims in a bold hand: “To be read by the fire in your cottage in the Cotswolds.”
EpilogueWhen I mentioned to Greg that I was writing an article on used bookshops as repositories of culture, he told me that he loved working at Blue Plate Books because he felt “surrounded by Western Civilization.”
Though I may appear to have wandered away from that thesis here, carried away by my enthusiasm for the books themselves, both Greg and I know the truth of his words: Used bookstores act as museums of culture, with the exception that here one can legally walk away with a portion of the past purchased and tucked under the arm.
A bookstore may lack the allure and the awe-inspiring exhibitions of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or D.C.’s National Air and Space Museum. But from those shelves, both the living and the dead share with us their dreams and ideas, their victories and defeats, their laughter and their tears.
If your town is fortunate enough to possess one of these museums, pay it a visit. Whether it’s an old edition of the stories of Edgar Allen Poe or a secondhand but readable copy of James Lee Burke’s “The Tin Roof Blowdown,” pick up a book you love and pay the curator of this gallery of paper and print. By keeping these bookstores alive and healthy, in our own small way we’re tending and nurturing the gardens of our culture.