My Favorite Bookstores

Given the choice between a neat bookstore with all the shelves perfectly arranged and a disordered bookstore where the books are stacked 2 deep on the shelves, I’ll take the messy store any day.

Public Domain Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz
Public Domain Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz

Of course, I’m talking about used bookstores here. Any new bookstore that’s a complete mess wouldn’t be worth my time. But a used bookstore with some books stacked on their sides and others arranged in something that used to be a sense of order…that’s the kind of place I enjoy wandering around in. They’re a dying breed, of course, like record stores, but they can still be found here and there.

A messy bookstore is one where treasures may be found, books that the proprietor might not even remember having put on the shelves years before. It’s maybe misplaced or hidden behind another book, and it’s just waiting to be discovered, usually at a bargain price.

Granted, such discoveries don’t happen that often. They’re the stuff of fantasy. But they could happen in a disordered store. In a neat store? Not so much.

My love for these kinds of stores started when I was about thirteen and discovered The Compleat Paperbacker, a paperback exchange that was a bit too far from home for me to ride my bike, so I’d beg my parents to drop me there when they were doing errands nearby. Later, I went on my own, and frequented the place for years. The Paperbacker claimed to have the biggest collection of science fiction in the San Gabriel Valley, and they were probably right. Several shelves lined both sides of one long row down the far side of the store, and countless books were crammed onto the shelves. All their books had a “Compleat Paperbacker” stamp on the top page edges and the inside covers so the owners would know if a book was cycling back through their store as part of their paperback exchange program. In years past, the owners had made some attempt at organization, writing names of major authors on the shelves (Bradbury and Burroughs at one end and then wrapping all the way around with van Vogt and Vonnegut on the opposite shelves), but time and stock had played hell with their system, so you couldn’t find books you were looking for in the places they were supposed to be. But that meant you did find books you weren’t looking for as you combed the shelves, made true discoveries of books and authors you’d never heard of.

That’s how I found my first Philip K. Dick novel. And how I got sucked into the many worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs. My first Heinlein books came from the Paperbacker–Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love. I also picked up my first Vonnegut book there, Cat’s Cradle.

The owners of the store were an old couple, very friendly. The husband looked like an aging hippie with long white beard and long hair. In later years, the old man appeared to have had a stroke and just sat in his wheelchair behind the register while his wife did all the ringing up and chatting. High up on the walls, above several of the shelves, were paintings that looked like scenes from old science fiction stories, and I had the vague feeling that the old man had painted them. I never asked, though. I wish I had. I realized years later they were probably original cover paintings from the pulp era, and maybe I’d been rubbing elbows as a teenager with one of the artists whose work I’ve come to love. Maybe not, though. Still, that’s another one of those things I found in a used bookstore without ever knowing I was going to look for it.

I’ve bumped into lots of other great, messy bookstores. There was one in Lawrence, Kansas that I wandered around in for quite a while, and there used to be several in the Normal Heights area of San Diego; they may still be there for all I know–I haven’t gone wandering down there for a few years. There was Buckeye’s Bargain Barn, a second-hand store not far from my house when I was in my early 20s, where they had a nice collection of random books that I loved digging through. There was a huge bookstore/record shop in Rockford Illinois, actually a big old house converted into a store with room after room of books and music; I picked up a Philip Dick Ace Double and a Link Wray LP in the same trip. And there was the antique mall in Kansas City, MO–three stories of assorted stuff and one area with books stacked with no organization at all; a first edition of Cannery Row came out of that one.

As I said before, stores like this are a dying breed. The last time I went by the Compleat Paperbacker, it had been converted to a church–kind of funny since I sort of spent a lot of time worshiping there when I was a kid. But I do still have some of the books I prized from the shelves all those years ago. A few years back, I went into the Barry R. Levin Science Fiction store in Santa Monica–not in any way a disorganized mess but rather a high end shop with a lot of great books. And there I picked up a copy of Philip Dick’s Vulcan’s Hammer with the familiar “Compleat Paperbacker” stamp along the top edge. It gave me a little thrill to see the stamp, a link to my past wanderings in messy bookshops. I had to wonder if that copy of Vulcan’s Hammer was in the Paperbacker back in the 80s when I pored over the shelves, and I missed it because the place was so disorganized, or because I hadn’t graduated from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Philip K. Dick yet. Of all the thousands of books that passed through that store over the years, the chances are slim. Still, it’s fun to wonder.

So, where will the next lost treasure from the Paperbacker show up? Maybe you even have one on your shelves and didn’t know it.


6 thoughts on “My Favorite Bookstores

  1. Nothing quite like a used bookstore. I visited one recently for the first time in years that I used to frequent in the early 80s and was happy to see it was still there – I even recognized the owners. So many memories of authors encountered.

  2. Ha! OMG I almost forgot about Buckeye’s Bargain Barn. That’s where i found my first used Talking Heads album “More Songs About Buildings and Food” beginning my thrift shop vinyl trolling collection obsession that peaked at about 2000 LPs. The Paperbacker is where I went on my first nerd date, in 6th grade, with Cindy Carr from Mr Heathcoat’s class. We rode our bikes over on a hot summer day and looked at comic books and Mad Magazine.

    I’ve found quite few books stores with books stacked as you describe. My first thought is usually “No human being would stack books like this” – Dr. Peter Venkman. But they are always a fun adventure for exploration. Acres of Books in Long Beach and Cliffs Books in Pasadena (open till midnight) were both super fun to browse. There’s one still alive now in San Mateo – B Street Books.

    For several years I considered the former Chelsea Books, near 9th and Irving and GG Park, to be the center of San Francisco. Beyond the draw of the amazing collection, ( I’d often go in on a Saturday afternoon and leave hours later with a few hundred dollars worth of books) it was primarily due to the gregarious, welcoming personality of the owner Brian and the community of book lovers and creative types that were drawn there to hang around the counter and chat. I’ve never found that feeling of community anywhere since then. One tragic day, after my exile, I returned from L.A. and Chelsea had been replaced by a shoe repair store. The cobbler probably briefly wondered why that strange, sad man was staring through his shop window with tears in his eyes.

  3. I used to love used bookstores as well.But once space became a premium in my life I had to go the Kindle route. Too many books all over my place that I would never read again prompted the change.

    That being said, I used to like to browse through Book Baron in Orange every now and then, but I hear that store is now closed.

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