Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Used Bookstores - The Opiate of the Bourgeois Masses

Since I just moved to the Berkshires last summer, I’m still figuring out where all my haunts will be. I’m pretty up on playgrounds and museums and such for preschool children – my most frequent need given my “job” – but I haven’t been entirely satisfied with the used-bookstore situation.* I am addicted to nonfiction books, in the past mainly theology and fishing, but for the last 5 years mostly books on ornamental horticulture.

I find the used bookstores to be more exciting because I never know what I’m going to find, and because I’m cheap. (Garden books are pricey. Say I see the latest by Tracy Disabato-Aust; I’m just not going to feel good about myself in the morning if I have to lay out $40 to get her.) Of course, most used book stores are pretty useless for my purposes. Half the stores must be excluded because they have almost nothing but trashy novels, or their stock looks like it’s been stored in a damp basement for 10 years. Maybe 20% or 30% have enough gardening books to allow a 30-minute browse.

So anyway, I think I have just found the best used bookstore in the area. It’s The Book Barn, at 200 Troy Schenectady Road (Rte 2), in Latham NY. From the center of North Adams, take Route 2 West, set your trip odometer as you crest the upramp out of town (just before the first cemetery) and when it hits 40 miles, you’ll see the store, which takes up the bulk of a small strip mall, on your left.

It’s a bit far to go just for books, I suppose, but surely one can find an excuse to visit Albany. (I was on the way back from Jeepers in Albany, which is sort of like Chuck E. Cheese, but for some reason this “Seed of Chucky” doesn’t fill me with the same dread as the original.)

Why do I like The Book Barn?

  • The store has 100,000 books.
  • Neatly arranged by topic. Naturally, it has a lot of books in a lot of topics (“124 categories,” according to their business card).
  • More gardening books than any used store I’ve been in except for the largest few in Boston and NYC.
  • The owners skillfully buy their stock and can quickly find things.
  • No crap. No old, festering useless tomes, no glut of ancient houseplant How-Tos or general books with titles like “Gardening” or “Gardening for Special People.” The hokiest stuff there was the old Time-Life Encyclopedia Of Gardening series, but those are actually fairly well done (albeit dated) books, and these copies were unusually complete and pristine.
  • The strip-mall may be an architectural wasteland, but my books don’t smell like mildew, as they often do when bought out of marginally heated, sprawling farmhouses.
  • Low prices. Most brick & mortar stores are still stuck on selling for half the cover price. That’s acceptable for a new remainder, and of course an antique can be worth a lot more than Gertrude Jekyll was selling it for, but in the days of Amazon I don’t know how they can expect to get that for the typical used book. At any rate, I bought five beautiful and interesting books, with $17 to $50 list prices, for $5.50 to $6.95. (One had a gift inscription, often the case with gardening books, but which doesn’t bother me or even register as a demerit from otherwise very good condition.)

For what it’s worth (OK, to the sane and skeptical reader presumably more than is my opinion) the store has won awards from Albany media sources in categories like “best used book store” and “best used bookstore (selection and price).” It’s open M-F 10-8, Sat 10-6, and Sun 11-5.

Does anyone have any other bookstore tips?

* There are indeed some pretty good bookstores around in Shelburne Falls and along the Connecticut River / Route 91 towns. They generally charge half-list, or about as much, as does the smallish but very interesting place on the ground floor of the Eclipse Mill (I drop in after art openings in the Mill’s gallery; I always find one thing I can’t resist, which is good because I’d find it very awkward leaving a one-man store, in a guy’s house yet, without buying something).

Friday, February 02, 2007

It’s all about the Ribeye

I live in Adams Mass., near the “Big Y” Supermarket. It’s a small chain, with 27 stores in Mass. and Connecticut (launched in 1936 in Chicopee, MA at a “Y” intersection, as I learned at It’s convenient for me, and I buy close to half my groceries there, but sometimes it feels like I’m going to a casino, not knowing if I’m going to get a good price, or pay perhaps 50% more than a good price. Further, in order to get the good price you may have to bring not only the members’ card on your keychain, but also their big, plastic, color-coded discount coins.

So when I have the time and I’m driving by, I go to the big Stop & Shop on the North Adams / Williamstown border, or the Wild Oats, for baked goods and produce; and I also feel like I should stop by Wal-Mart every couple of weeks, getting everything I need which they have there, cheaper. So my convenient supermarket, isn’t.

On a related note, I try to buy things in small, local shops in Adams and North Adams when practical. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still largely about the Benjamins. I won’t eschew the leviathan from Arkansas just because it’s the leviathan from Arkansas (or because “it’s like Hitler,” as my mother helpfully pointed out), but at the same time I’m willing to give a little place some business if the service justifies the price. It often does: Service is great around here, precisely – I suppose – because the business climate is so difficult; and often the prices are great too.

One such place I’m happy to shop in several times a month is The Jolly Butcher Shoppe in Adams. I haven’t tried the deli items, but the raw meat is great. It’s open Wed-Sat 10:00-6:00 at 90 Summer Street, an area that’s neck-and-neck with Eagle Street in North Adams for the prize of Most Struggling Retail District in the Berkshires. (I also get haircuts and furniture on Summer Street.)

So how does it stack up? I’ve taken Jolly Butcher’s printed price list to the Big Y a couple of times. (I was surprised at how paranoid I felt with my “Jolly Butcher” price-list, as if a couple goons wearing bloody “Y” aprons were gonna throw me out of the joint.) And Jolly’s meat prices were almost always better than Big Y’s. I’m not going to get into specifics, because prices fluctuate, but I entered prices into a spreadsheet,* and Jolly averaged about 24% lower than Big Y’s regular prices. When items had a “Sale” promotion at Big Y, Jolly Butcher was still 8% less expensive. It was only the “Buy 1, Get 1 Free” deals at Big Y which were cheaper than Jolly’s prices. They’re great if you happen to luck into something you want, and you want 2 of them, but they’re not reliable sources of savings unless you’re completely flexible about what’s for dinner, and yet can pack away a lot of the same cut of meat before age or freezing enter into the picture.

My favorite piece of meat is probably the Ribeye steak. Jolly always seems to have it, cutting up a big boneless one every week. (I wouldn’t mind the bone, too, if the price were cut slightly to reflect that.) Usually I fry it in an almost dry, very hot pan for 2 minutes on a side, remove the steaks and turn the heat down to medium, then put in a couple tablespoons each of butter, chopped fresh ginger or garlic, and soy sauce, and return the steaks until medium-rare. The ultimate in meaty goodness!

The Jolly Butcher has also recently added cooked chicken on the bone [pressure-fried] sold a la carte. When the owner told me he was going to be spending $13,000 to install a cooker and vent for chicken and fish, I resisted the temptation to shout, “Good God man, haven’t you noticed this is a depressed mill town?” Well, it’s fortunate he ignored the advice I did not presume to proffer, because it’s better than any other fried or roasted chicken I’ve ever had.

* (prices for Hamburger 90% lean, Hamburger 80%, Filet Mignon, London Broil, Boneless Ribeye, Chuck Roast, Boneless Breast and Pork Tenderloin)