Used Bookstore Magic

It’s a week into the new year. So far, I have read one book. I found it in a used bookstore while I was home in Pennsylvania for the holidays. I only found the used bookstore because I’d just met a friend for coffee and was walking up the street to a camera store when the sign caught my eye. I bought three other books in the same store, one of which I mailed to a friend as a spur-of-the-moment Christmas gift. It cost five times as much to ship the book as it did to buy it.

Probably the greatest used bookstore in the history of ever. (Shakespeare & Company, Paris)
Oh, and is that a Fitzgerald poster I spy in the background? Hm!

I found a book by Jess Walter (Over Tumbled Graves, set in Spokane) and wondered what people there, in Pennsylvania, imagined when they read a novel set in Spokane. And I realized that if it had been two years earlier, I wouldn’t have picked up the novel at all, having no connection to Jess Walter, and even if I had, I’d have no idea how to imagine Spokane either.

I also found a book called The Fall of a Sparrow, written by Robert Hellenga, a professor from my undergrad. When I marveled about how strange this was to my friend, he said, “Yeah, weird quality of his books—they’re all over used bookstores.”

I bought a copy of E.B. White’s collected letters, because I had recently checked out a book of his essays from the library, because I had read an excerpt of a particular essay (“Here is New York”) that my friend, who I knew through a study-abroad program in Paris, had posted on her blog, and when I read the essay in its entirety, I could not get over how strange it was to find the lines “New York is nothing like Paris; it is nothing like London; and it is not Spokane multiplied by sixty, or Detroit multiplied by four” because there I was, reading the essay on my couch in Spokane, having just tried to write in my own way about New York, which is how I had come to the book in the first place.

After I had picked out a few books to buy, I realized the shop continued on the other side of the old house it occupied. Over there, I found the poetry room, where I browsed each shelf and left with e.e. cummings’s 95 poems. I bought it partly because we had just read him in class this fall and I was interested in reading more of his work, but even before that, I’d been searching bookstores for months for a collection of his that included the poem “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]” which this collection had, and which I love for no particular reason other than that it makes me want to cry every time I read it, and for no particular reason, though not unrelated, it reminds me of Illinois, though I can’t remember where I first came across it.

The book I was most excited about finding there, the first book I’ve read this year, is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last (and unfinished) novel The Last Tycoon.

Mmmm. That’s my kinda book.

I won’t go into the book itself too much (more on that next week, probably), except to say that it’s the last work by Fitzgerald I hadn’t read yet (excluding his short stories). As you may remember from earlier posts, I love Scott Fitzgerald a very great deal, and I was glad to find this book waiting for me when I had time to read it. And because if I’m going to buy used books, I snobbishly prefer them to have at least the look—if not the feel, if not the smell—of used books, I was glad that this book had no dust jacket, no words besides the author’s name, and the familiar two-toned cover that all of the old classics on my dad’s bookshelf have. The strangest thing, I suppose, is that the introduction begins “Scott Fitzgerald died suddenly of a heart attack (December 21, 1940) the day after he had written the first episode of Chapter 6 of his novel.” It happened to be December 21 when I wandered into the bookstore and found this book.

I realize these events are tied together by circumstance, that if I had wandered into that bookstore five years or two years or six months ago, I would have had different reactions to the books on the shelves and that maybe something else would have caught my eye and seemed miraculous, and so these things that feel like magic are really more like coincidence, or perhaps they occur in the name of synchronicity, if you are given to looking at echoes in your life as more than just coincidence, as I am.

Still, it’s for the uncanny occurrences and surprises that I go into used bookstores in the first place. I didn’t go in looking for something, I went in because I was looking. Because I happened to be looking up so I wouldn’t miss the sign for Rutherford’s Camera Shop, and saw Used Books instead. I went in looking just to look. Because sometimes I don’t do enough of that. And then, when things jump out at me, I like to believe they do because I am in that place at that specific time, and it makes me feel a little bit grounded in the world, like if there’s a center where everything can rest, this is it, at least for a moment.


  • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

    <y copy of "The Great Gatsby" looks like exactly like your copy of "The Last Tycoon" there! Slim and teal and black with Fitzgerald's name on the front in that cool font. Same publisher?

    The last time I went to Paris, I spent forever trying to find Shakespeare & Co., couldn't, instead found another awesome used bookstore owned by a Canadian ex-pat where I bought a bunch of stuff, received begrudging directions from him to get to S&Co., then when I got there I didn't even go in, just took a picture of the front.

    I love the idea of synchronicity. Writers should love it, no? That's so much of what writing IS — finding the metaphors that echo through everyday life, grouping them, describing them in a meaningful way. Which is all to say, I dig this post.

  • I know just what you mean.

    In used bookstores I look for writers I love, writers I’ve met or worked with, writers who live in my city. I like to see if their work is resting on a shelf, waiting to be read in a suburb of Boston or a neighborhood in Seattle or LA.

    So many perfect moments of synchronicity.

    Also: I love e.e. cummings’ “[i carry your heart…” as well. It’s so simply amazing–the sentiment it packs with such simple images as tree, sun, moon, stars, heart. I feel like *everyone* needs to read it annually at the very least. And yet when I see it used in wedding ceremonies in movies, I think “You don’t get it! You don’t appreciate it enough!” (Am I just being a poetry snob? Probably.)

    My most recent used bookstore purchase was the weekend I was in Spokane in October. I was in some random thrift store on Division, maybe. I picked up Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep,” which my attended-prep-school-and-roomed-with-me-college friend has been telling me to read for years. I’m pretty sure she even owned the belt on its cover. I finally read it last week and was glad to understand my former roommate just a little more. :)

  • Susanne Hearn says:

    We have had some interest in these types of promotional items and had some graphics prepared by another business. Is it possible to use the same graphics? The company is Concord Signs & Banners 3568 Kimball Way Concord, CA 94518 – 925-808-3817. I’m not sure if the files will be compatible.

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