I like used things. Not everyone does, you know. There is surely much to be said for the new and there are times when new is not only preferred but necessary, or as good as necessary. Toothbrushes.
I have tried to remember when I discovered used bookstores but I am uncertain about it. I would like to remember. It seems like it should be earlier than my memory tells me. I worked in the school library all through junior high, which won’t be a surprise to anyone, and so I had a practically endless supply of reading material. And I was a frequent visitor to the public library because I had a habit of reading everything I could find on a topic. This is how, at age 13, I was an expert on Amelia Earhart and at age 14 an expert on the early history of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. I don’t really remember going to bookstores. When I read my first Bob Dylan biography in high school I bought it at the grocery store. Our local K-Mart didn’t have a row of books it had an entire section of the store devoted to books.
My earliest memories of used bookstores are from college. There were three used bookstores in downtown Fullerton, California. One was a small, plain and simple paperback shop, quiet and carpeted, where I started my habit of collecting every edition of Ray Bradbury paperbacks I could find. There was a larger store with tall shelves that required step stools, creaky wooden floors and row upon row of everything, from popular fiction to obscure matter gathering dust. It was a used book shop from central casting complete with a frazzled and twitchy proprietor with aged elfin features who had a seemingly eidetic memory. If you asked him about a book he would close his eyes and tell you precisely where it was in the bookstore. If you asked about a topic he could recite the titles in stock on that topic. The third bookstore was a nerd shop called Aladdin Books and run by twin brothers. Though they carried all kinds of books the science fiction, fantasy, and magic sections were abundant and they also sold movie stills, comic books, and memorabilia, mostly from Star Trek and Star Wars.
The old downtown area of Fullerton was dilapidated back then but on the cusp of a revival of sorts that would eventually drive all three bookstores out. When I returned to live there for a brief time fifteen years ago only Aladdin’s remained. They closed in 2007 but are active on eBay.
Another used book store I visited often over 20 years, the Book Baron in Anaheim, California, also closed in 2007. It was a mighty store in its day, huge and always busy. I could count on them to have almost any title but Book Baron was not one of my favorites. It was clean and organized and had helpful staff. That’s okay. But I like dusty, messy, used book stores with stacks everywhere. My favorite of all time, like so many people, was Bertrand Smith’s Acres of Books in Long Beach, California. I was so overwhelmed by this bookstore the first time I visited in the early 90’s I had to leave after 10 minutes.
For 12 years, on and off, I lived just a few miles from this death trap of a book store. I loved it but I knew that being inside during an earthquake might mean the end of me. There were so many books and they created shelving out of every poor excuse for a plank of wood they could find. The shelving itself was a work of art. Despite being designated as a historical landmark Acres of Books gave up the ghost in 2008, just a few months after I visited for the last time. I’m not saying I cried about it but I was mighty pensive on October 18, 2008.
There are so many others, now gone, and I can’t remember their names. I lived in San Jose, California, in the mid 1990’s and there was a small grungy used bookstore downtown that I loved because they had a huge magazine selection and I was just beginning to form an interest in ephemera. They had a large collection of men’s magazines and there was a sign on the wall that read “Shirts must remain tucked in at all times.” From that store I purchased a number of old Forbes magazines, framed the covers and sold them at consignment stores. No, you don’t make a profit doing that sort of thing.
But this is about used things, which means more than books. I don’t think I avoided thrift stores for the first half of my life I just think it didn’t really occur to me to go into them very often. But there was a point in my 20s when I started visiting thrift stores out of necessity. Even still, I went in with a specific target in mind. I didn’t browse. There is a big difference between visiting a thrift store because you need a white dress shirt in good condition and visiting because you collect cast iron skillets.
These days I am a self-designated casual thrift picker. I set aside a very small budget and allow myself one hour total during the week and one hour total over the weekend in thrift stores (including drive time for stores that are not on my way to somewhere else). These sorts of boundaries are necessary as I can become…focused.
I love used things for a few reasons. There is the obvious, paying very little for something relative to its value. That’s the part that’s like a game. I have tried the resale game and though I have a good eye and sold things on eBay for many times what I paid, like framing the Forbes covers you can make money but not profit by simply dabbling. Nevertheless there is something satisfying about buying something useful of high quality and knowing that the “marketplace” puts a dollar value on it that is 10 times what you paid, or 30 or even 60 times.
But the thing I love most about used stuff is thinking about the life a thing lead before it became part of my life. I love opening a used book and finding some random piece of life tucked into it. Receipts, plane tickets, movie tickets, grocery lists, playing cards, pressed flowers. These are all things I have found inside used books. I recently bought a book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes published in 1930 and found a poem, written in pencil, tucked into the pages.
The same goes for cast iron cookware (especially when it is over 100 years old) and now cutlery, even though there is no evidence of their past lives like sometimes found in books. Though I once bought a golf club, a driver for $3 that had sold the previous season for over $200, and examining the face of the club I read the story of how the previous owner must have lost a great many golf balls to the right.
There are times when I buy something for almost no reason at all beyond the story it tells. This is dangerous so, of course, there are rules. I won’t pay more than $5 for something that is not functional but nostalgic or perhaps collectible to others if not to me. For example, back in the day G.I. Joe came inside a footlocker and around the time I was born the footlocker was made of wood. I found one at thrift for $3. In the condition it’s in and without Joe or any of the accessories that came with it, it’s worth about $8. One day, at a garage sale probably, I will ask $8 and take $6. Or maybe I’ll just keep it and use it to store all the different colored 3×5 cards I use for storyboarding. There you go.
Finally, I like used things for purely aesthetic reasons too. I just really like how things look when they have been used the same way I like how people look when they have lived. Survival, endurance, wear and tear, experience, and lots of stories. These are things I find attractive on both people and objects. Rust and wrinkles are sexy.