In Praise of Used Bookstores, Part I

Even those of us who have embraced e-readers still appreciate the feel of a book in our hands. And sometimes — often, in fact, for sf/f fans — you absolutely need to acquire a particular hard to find book.

Perhaps someone has recommended a book that sounds great, but it’s out of print. Or you’ve discovered an author you love from the past, and you want more. Or maybe you just like to browse in an expertly curated sci-fi or fantasy book section.

That’s where your friendly local used bookstore comes in.

For example, a few years ago we were looking for a copy of Voyage from Yesteryear by James Hogan, published in 1982, for our daughter. Eureka – she found it on the shelf of her local used bookstore.

Could I have gotten it online? Sure, Amazon would have sold us a used copy for two dollars more, and the shipping would have cost more than the book. Not to mention the instant gratification and way better karma we got by buying it at a real bookstore.

Gimme that west coast vibe.

I spent most of my life on the East Coast. In the communities where I lived in the Northeast, used bookstores had been going the way of curious anachronisms.

Landmarks like the Strand in New York City, of course, are still there; but even the tiny used and rare book warrens that once dotted Harvard Square have mostly given way to a limited number of larger, more commercial stores.

Our own local new-and-used bookseller in New Hampshire reduced their used sf/f and general fiction inventory. They only considered taking books for credit in segments they felt were marketable, such as military history and recent best sellers.

Now I live on the Other Coast. Here in the west, used bookstores appear to fall into the category of required sustenance. I’m not just talking about icons like Powell’s Books in Portland and Moe’s in Berkeley. Perhaps the best part of the west coast used book vibe is the preponderance of smaller community stores.

Meet my local.

King’s Books in Tacoma, WA, is across the street from my apartment (and two doors down from Harmon’s Brewery, my other local. I can drink and read!) King’s was founded by two alumni of Powell’s Books in 2000. For me it epitomizes the way communities here welcome book stores in general, and used bookstores specifically.

A brief digression: It’s practically illegal in Tacoma to speak of King’s without at least mentioning the official book store cats, Atticus and Herbert.

Atticus…or Herbert? One of these days I’ll get them straight.

The store has great feng shui, displaying a well-curated selection of new books just inside the entrance, then drawing you deeper into its substantial innards with shelf upon shelf of books of every description.

King’s has a splendid collection of fantasy and sci-fi. The monthly Sword and Laser book club is one of the most popular of several book groups. A poster of Frank Herbert, a Tacoma boy, is prominently displayed on the wall.

Feminist science fiction spoken here.

The owner of King’s, sweet pea Flaherty (yes, that is his legal name), offers a fascinating perspective derived from decades in the book business. Although he’s happy to discourse on any aspect of the business, his own interests lean toward science fiction, feminist literature, and the intersection of the two. (How he got here is an interesting story in itself.)

Other staff members are also well-informed and helpful when it comes to both new and used sf/f. “It helps that several of us read it ourselves,” sweet pea says.

I asked him what people generally come in looking for.

“There’s a resurgence of interest in the classics, such as Asimov and Tiptree,” he said. “But we stock a lot of newer writers, too, with an emphasis on women authors. And quirky. We like quirky.”

Speaking of James Tiptree, Jr., sweet pea gave me a glimpse into how the used book trade offers insight into the evolution of women’s sci-fi publishing.

An early James Tiptree, Jr. book cover.

Tiptree, who began publishing in the late ’60s, was really Alice Sheldon. Because of her personal history and her work as an Army intelligence officer during WWII, she was able to write with a macho edge that few women at that time could exhibit. No one suspected her true gender until she was inadvertently “outed” in 1977. She used her pseudonym right up to her death in 1987 and protected it fiercely as long as she could.

“When everyone thought she was a man,” sweet pea said. “Her books were designed with spaceships and astronauts. Other women, even those writing hard sci-fi, got soft fantasy covers. Once everyone knew she was a woman her covers changed, too.”

sweet pea agrees emphatically that bookstores are an integral part of the community. In addition to book groups, King’s hosts a wealth of literary and cultural events, many of which mine Tacoma’s own rich arts scene.

Next month I’ll venture off my own block to explore some other Northwest booksellers. Good book shops are a treasure, and in spite of my west coast fixation, I know they exist all over the world. I hope you have one near you!

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