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).


Ali B. said...

I hadn't heard of this one. Thanks. We always like Down in Denver, in Stephentown, though we haven't been there for a while (kids and used book stores = not always a good combination). It's especially nice in summer, when things are blooming - the property's kind of pretty. There's a good one in Chatham, too - I forget the name, though. The woman used to work at MASS MoCA, and they know their books well. And did you know there's one in the Eclipse Mill in North Adams? All of these are smaller than the one you describe, but charming. Didn't realize you were new to the area. Welcome!

Southview said...

I am not trying to be smart here but have you tried..... the library?
1. Close to home
2. Books arranged nicely
3. A section devoted just for kids
4. If they don't have it, they can get it
5. Can stay for many hours
6. No smelly books, even the very old books smell fresh
6. And the best part of all.....THEIR FREE!

DWPittelli said...

Alison, thanks for the Down in Denver tip; I'll go there, probably in the spring. I agree with you on the Eclipse Mill.

Southview, I go to libraries a lot. I have read all the gardening books in Adams and N. Adams which interest me; I can still get good stuff in Williamstown, and do (a book or two at a time, I don't want to run out of options when I go there with my kids).

Greg said...

While their used selection isn't worth a damn, Northshire Books in Manchester, VT still ranks as one of my 10 best bookstores in America. And it is a great place to spend a winter afternoon with kids.

Find an excuse to travel to Portland, OR and go to Powell's. It is used book heaven. I have spent days just cruising the stacks.

TWBernard said...

Wouldn't, like, Starbucks be the true opiate of the bourgeois masses?

Back in the day, I was partial to The Book Rack in Arlington, Massachusetts. Decent selection, generally helpful staff, decent credit policy.

They were fairly generous about taking books in trade, and their credit policy allowed you to use credit toward half the (marked down) price of any used book. So, if you bought a used book marked at $4 -- for example -- you'd be $2 out of pocket, $2 off your credit. I don't recall how sales tax factored in.

Not having done a lot of selling of used books, I don't know whether this was a standard business practice in the used book trade, or something unique to this store. Either way, I found it a reasonable arrangement all around; the store made money on the transaction, I got cheap books even cheaper, and my credit lasted for a good long while.

Greg said...

Wouldn't, like, Starbucks be the true opiate of the bourgeois masses?

Starbucks is cafeinnator of the bourgois masses.

TWBernard said...

Right, and caffeine is a stimulant, opiates are depressants. Good point.

Of course, the soft jazz, comfy chairs ("Not...The Comfy Chair!") and starchy, starchy pastries that are part of the Starbucks experience can be sufficiently soporific to counteract the caffeine buzz.

Mike said...

I think I may be the only person who hates Starbucks: don't like the coffee, don't like the atmosphere, don't like the ventis and grandes, don't like the corporate-speak coming from the mouths of the workers.


That Girl said...

In response to Southview, am I the only one who sees the big problem with the point about library books being free? Namely, that you have to, you know, give them back? They're not free to OWN -- unless your local library works a lot differently than all the rest in the world. Certainly libraries have definite advantages and I'm a big fan, but I also like to buy books -- they are two different things. (Of course, many libraries also have book sales with dirt cheap books... but they usually kind of suck.)