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Finding new magic in old - at least used - books

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 21, 2008 - I recently had the idea that used books might sell better during an economic downturn. So, over the summer, I went poking into used bookstores, asking questions, especially whether sales are up. Mostly, I stayed in the central/south/west corridor of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Large or small, used bookstores always seem empty, nearly private places stocked with treasures for you alone to find. I knew a bookstore owner who had no sign out front, unlocked his door to let you in, and expected you to call ahead. I was astounded the one time he let someone else in while I was still there.

When the Pageant Theater moved in across the street from that little secret bookstore, the rents soared, so the store had to go. The idiosyncratic owner and his inventory reappeared on South Grand as "Dunaway's" -- although Pat Dunaway himself is gone now, God rest him.

Where do used book sellers come from? Michael J. Reilly, once a professional fundraiser, followed the woman he loved to St. Louis and married her. He'd had his fill of year-round traveling and opened Booksmarts, a little place in a strip mall on Manchester Road. Reilly caught the seller's disease after he bought a group of 88 books for 25c apiece and then sold one of them for $125. People love such stories, but the more common fact is that "little" bookstores often have an inventory of 10,000 or 20,000 books -- and maybe the same number or double at home or in storage -- and their turnover rate is less than 2 percent.

Michelle Barron and her family have operated The Book House, her charming haunted bookstore, for more than 20 years in the same location. She has two hundred thousand books in storage that are not on her computerized inventory of 40,000 volumes. She says her sales plummeted in 2001 when online bookselling grew and big box bookstores came to town. Her sales are up strongly this year, good news for her -- and evidence for my bad-times "theory."

Her book-crammed house is 150 years old with a curious history, so some haunting should not surprise. Varying stories say a little girl fell off the roof or down a well. Sightings have included someone on the roof, a man with no face, a shadow person. Barron even wonders if a ghost might not come in with a book consignment! People do get spiritually attached to their collections.

As Larry McMurtry, who owns a booktown, says in his memoir, "No one claimed book collecting was rational." That's the final comment in the chapter where he explains about his costly collection of books by 18th- and 19th-century lady travelers.

Such oddities abound in the old-book business. Keith Patten of Patten Books told me that used book sellers try to fill niches in the market. Patten says that military, art, history and cookbooks sell well for him. He wants books that people cannot get elsewhere. For example, he happens to have collectible copies of McMurtry's novels that you and I have never even thought about: a signed Billy the Kid -- in Polish -- and a signed Texasville -- in Greek. OK, that constitutes a definite market niche.

Eugene M. Hughes, Antiquarian Bookseller, hidden on a side street in Clayton, even told me that book sellers now only sell to other book sellers. "Not even to collectors?" I asked. He thought briefly and answered, "Collectors are booksellers who don't sell."

Book "sellers" or "collectors," the people we are considering here are book lovers. Explaining one of the hidden problems of antiquarian books, Hughes said, "I buy them twice. I have to bring them back from the dead."

He meant that after he buys books, he commonly has to pay to restore them, too, before he can sell them. As I looked through his small shop, I had a sense that he really didn't want to sell his books to just anybody. He wanted someone he could match up with his books. What might he say to a professional decorator who came in and said, "I'll take 10 little ones in brown leather"?

You may wonder about the difference between used and antiquarian (either can be rare). Mere used books cost a dollar or two. Antiquarian books have extraordinary value: beauty, rarity or historical significance. To point out two St. Louis-related rarities, at Hughes' shop you can buy Leaves from the History of St. Alphonsus Church, St. Louis, Mo. Compiled in Commemoration of the Completion of the Church (1895) for a mere $35, or maybe you'd like A Tour of St. Louis; or, the Inside Life of a Great City (1878) for $150.

My own longtime favorite bookstore in St. Louis is Left Bank Books on Euclid, where I know a few of the staff by name. One of the anchors of the Central West End, Left Bank is an unusual combination of new bookstore upstairs and used bookstore downstairs. Started more than 30 years ago by Washington U. graduate students with an inventory of 500 used books, LBB has become a city institution, like Ted Drewes.

They not only sell books, they keep gallery space to exhibit the work of local artists (Mary Engelbreit was an early example). They have book readings and signings all year long by nationally prominent writers. They even offer a full complement of poetry books and magazines because, as Barry Leibman, one of the longtime owners, says, "A real bookstore should sell poetry."

Like many a good bookstore, they are neighbors, not mere merchants. Someone can walk in with a box of books and get cash or credit on other books from the store. If the store doesn't want to sell the books, they take them, anyway, to give away to charities, including a local church, the YMCA and the St. Louis Book Fair.

I like to think that such neighborly stores are making a solid stand, providing good products for reasonable prices to people who return the favor by staying loyal. Sure, people can buy books online, literally from around the world. But I most often go online to look at book prices and then try to find a local store that has what I want. That will show those price-cutting elephants who trample our neighborhoods!

For awhile people wondered if books might just disappear -- after five centuries -- into the internet, where people would "click" their reading in and out of existence. Apparently, not likely, after all.

In response to my questions about whether used book sales were up because the economy is weak, the answers were mixed. But four different owners, the majority, first said they saw no difference, then changed their minds and said that sales probably are up this year.

So, OK, selling used books may not be a likely way to get super rich, but that will never stop some people from buying more books, old and new. Eventually, all those books collect, collect -- and then cycle back into used bookstores.

Places to check out

The Book House

  • 9719 Manchester
  • 314-968-4491

Booksmarts

  • 10096 Manchester Rd.
  • 314-966-2665

Dunaway's Books

  • 3111 S. Grand
  • 314-771-7150

Eugene M. Hughes, Antiquarian Bookseller

  • 927 DeMun
  • 314-727-9777

Left Bank Books

  • 399 N. Euclid
  • 314-367-6731

Patten Books

  • 10202 Manchester
  • 314-822-3200

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Nick Otten is associate director in the Theater Program at Clayton High School and adjunct professor in the graduate Communications MAT Program at Webster University. He consumes vast quantities of books and movies.

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