Over the weekend, my young daughter had a swimming lesson at a park district pool here in Chicago. As she was in the water, I had a chance to do a bit of wandering, and before I knew it I found myself in a used bookstore that I hadn’t known about before. My love for books in general, and used bookstores in particular, has been well-documented in this space, so I went inside and started to look around.
The store’s square footage was limited, since it’s on a busy street in a gentrifying area. I imagine that the rents are very high where the store is, while even five years ago it would have been far more reasonable than it is today. But better to have a bookstore, or any business really, than to let the space sit empty.
The store was a labyrinth of books, literally stacked from floor to ceiling in order to maximize the space they did have. How anyone can browse for books that are far off the ground I never bothered to ask. I figured my time was too limited to get into any of that. I’ll ask about it next time, if there is one.
I had engaged a few of my old friends from high school in a discussion on Facebook earlier in the day, and I had invoked Thomas Paine and his Age of Reason. It occurred to me that I was familiar with the work in a general sense, but hadn’t actually read it before. And what better place to remedy that than in a used bookstore? It was as if I had gone there for exactly that reason, even if it seemed like I was just trying to kill some time during a swimming lesson.
I somehow managed to find a copy of Paine’s work, but there wasn’t a price written inside, as there were with many of the books in the shop. So I took the book to the checkout register, presented my find, and asked what the price was. The proprietor of the shop gave me a price of six dollars, tax included.
The price seemed a bit high, since I’m used to going to garage sales and picking out books for a quarter or fifty cents, at the most. There was also a public library nearby, and I could have probably found a copy of Paine’s book there, for free (that is, once I pay off whatever overdue fines are on my account). The bottom line was that six bucks for a book seemed a bit high to me.
But then I realized that the cost of the book also took into account the rent on the space, and the electric bill, and the heat, when the winter sets in. Used bookstores are a rare treat, in the world of Amazon.com and Wal-Mart selling books and titles on Gutenberg and e-readers proliferating every day. If I want to help keep this bookstore in business, I need to pay a premium to do it. So I dug out the money, handed it to the shop’s owner, and walked away with a couple hundred pages of Thomas Paine’s take on matters of faith.
On my way back to the swimming pool where the lesson was finishing up, I felt good about supporting the cause of bookstores like this one. They’re an endangered breed, with all of the pressures that are building up on them every day. And if I have to kick in a little bit more to get a book that I want, I’ll do that because I’d hate to consider what a world without these types of shops would be like.