Mining For (Literary) Gold

There is no holier place than a good used bookstore. Even the not-so-great ones are shrines to the literary world that was, back before television and audiobooks, Netflix and Redbox, and video games. Don't get me wrong... I enjoy all of those things, and accord them their due. But my oldest and truest friends have always been books, and I seek out their temples—the used book stores—wherever I go.

I frequent them in every state I travel. I seek them out. At home, in Indiana, my temple of choice is Half-Price Books (which is a chain through many states.) In North Carolina, it's Edward McKay. But right now, I'm in Jacksonville, FL, and it is home to the holy of holies: Chamblin Bookmine.

The Chamblin Bookmine is an unassuming, single-story building, tucked away almost beneath an offramp from a bridge. But beneath its white, mostly windowless, paneled exterior, under the aging and fading letters on the roof that bear its name, lies a behemoth. This place is gargantuan. I swear it is larger on the inside than it is on the outside. It is a labyrinth of wooden shelves, some curving along the outer wall, some winding throughout, all stacked eight to ten feet high and completely filled with books. I could spend an hour trying to accurately depict this store, but I would still fail to capture the sheer glorious scope of the fire hazard it represents.

In Portland, OR there is a wonderful store called Powell's City Of Books (I think it's a multi-state chain, now) that sells new, used and rare books. It is a glorious place, and truly seems like a city of books. A modern city, though, blending the old and the new. Powell's is the New York City to Chamblin's Rome. This is the old city, the old country, still slightly shrouded by fable and and tinged with myth and history. This is Narnia. This is my favorite hunting ground.
I buy books, very occasionally, online. But it isn't nearly as satisfying. There is no hunt online, a book is either available or it isn't. And I am all about the hunt.

The hunt is when you are in your seventh bookstore in five states, on your hands and knees, sifting through either vaguely organized or completely disorganized racks, stacks, and boxes of books for that one book from an author that you haven't yet read, or maybe that you read once long ago, lost, and haven't found since, or that book you had when you were a kid, the one they just don't print anymore. The one you want you kids to read and enjoy as much as you did, hoping that it will spark a fire in their heads the same way it did yours. The hunt is about the pride and triumph you feel when that book falls under your eye, when your hand closes around it, feeling its heft as you liberate it from the stacks, and about the endorphins released when you smell the age of the paper and binding glue, and you know the search has paid off.

There is a deep satisfaction in the hunt that can never be duplicated by spending a few minutes on and waiting for your order to be processed.

I don't want to take away from local “new” bookstores (though those are a fading breed, quickly being done away with by the huge chains that also support the online book market...) If there's a new release you want, or something still in publication, by all means, go to your friendly local bookstore and order it! But I travel for a living, and I read mostly paperbacks. And I like to find those older editions of them. The ones without the pictures from the movie or television adaptation on the cover. And I'm always looking for old editions of Edith Wharton books for my wife, or even paperbacks of the very few Wharton books she doesn't have a copy of...

And I love the hunt.