Bruce Bentzman offers the latest production:

From the Night Factory

35. Bookstores

“Why?” I asked Eric Maywar, the proprietor of Classics Books.

“It’s simple,” Eric answered, “I like books and I like book people.”

Eric was examining the accumulation of donated books. The bookstore doesn’t make money. Eric now has a real job to support his family. He comes in to the store on Friday nights and Saturdays to perform this triage. Books damaged or disfigured are discarded. The books he has in abundance or are pitifully undesirable he sets aside to give away or sell among the discounts. The books he wants, he prices and shelves. Some of these books are donated outright to his store and others the donors will receive store credit in exchange. Eric doesn’t buy books.

“There are undeniable advantages to e-books,” I said. I was reading from my Kindle while Eric was sorting.

“Yeah, but they still haven’t coffee-table e-books or pop-up e-books,” he replied.

We talked about the physicality of books. They have weight to indicate their length. Turning pages is like unveiling a prize, unwrapping a thought. They acquire odors with age, become worn from having travelled and often fondled. Even after we have read them, they are enthroned on shelves, a row of inscribed spines, hic jacet, caskets containing experiences that by opening them are resurrected.

“And they don’t need batteries,” Eric is quick to point out.

If the discarded paperbacks have interesting covers, Eric tears these off and I take them home to convert into postcards, which get sold, fifty cents each or three for a dollar.

We talked about the joys of browsing, which cannot be fully realized with online bookstores. It isn’t merely the cover design that catches your interest. Sometimes it is a book almost overlooked, smaller than the others, tucked in the shadow, a spine you can’t read and your curiosity calls you to pull it out. When you open to the title page, choice words suggest a further realm inside and you want to explore. Or you might open to a middle page and uncover an insightful passage that reveals a sage. It could be the language is lyrical and inviting ownership, like a beseeching kitten or an affectionate puppy.

Eric’s bookstore is small, the size of a living room in a middle-class home. The place is crowded with books, with piles rising from the floor and crowning the tops of bookcases. Here I volunteer to work two days a week with Ms Keogh, my more significant other. We are paid in store credit. We do it because this bookstore is important to Trenton, the capital of New Jersey. It is the only bookstore in the city. It is a vortex through which orphaned books are squeezed to again be dispersed among new owners. The bookstore is also a community center, a place to network, play board games, and present readings. The bookstore is occasionally host to the Trenton Knit and Stitch. Trenton school children can take books away for free, except consignment, rare, erotica, and comic books. Teachers come for books to bring to their classes. Ms Keogh takes books for the prison, using credit from The New Jim Crow Committee. (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, which came out in 2012, addresses the ongoing racism, institutionalized and subtle, that continues in this country despite our having an African-American President.)

Ms Keogh and I come in for two hours in the afternoon, Thursdays and Fridays, when the civil servants are released to feed and swarm the sidewalks in search of lunch. We come back on Friday nights so Ms Keogh can play Scrabble and I can chat and kibitz. I love “our” bookstore.

I like nearly all bookstores and especially used bookstores. The nation is dotted with Barnes & Noble bookstores, in itself an affirmative declaration of a literate country, but the stores are clones with no surprises. They all sell the same books and at the same prices. Used bookstores come in flavors and a visit to one is unlike a visit to another, so they become pilgrimages to unique experiences. I will describe three of my favorite Meccas.

Among the waves of small hills and meandering creeks of Chester County, where Andrew Wyeth lived and found inspiration for his painting, there is the Baldwin’s Book Barn. One can easily be lost searching for it among the narrow country roads and is rewarded upon arriving to find an old stone dairy barn in a bucolic setting. A barn it was, but now it is a many chambered labyrinth lined with bookshelves filled with hundreds of thousands of books. The browser must cautiously make their way through low doorways and negotiate steep stairways through this rustic maze with many nooks. The barn was built in 1822. It has been a bookstore since Mr Baldwin, a bookseller since 1934, returned from a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II and moved his business into it. After inevitably finding and buying a book you didn’t know you wanted before you arrived, it is delightful to take it outside and have a picnic on the lawn, inspecting the book even before you get it home.

Port Richmond in Philadelphia is a working-class community of Poles, Italians, and Lithuanians living in rows of redbrick homes rubbing shoulders. The community has been brutalized by an economy that left them behind and by the disregard of city planners who prefer to focus elsewhere, a community that has been bypassed by the construction of Interstate 95 through it. Nonetheless, blue-collar pride has spared the area from dilapidation and the sidewalks are kept clean. It was here, one afternoon, I happened to be passing through on motorcycle and discovered a bookstore where I didn't expect to find one, Port Richmond Books. I parked my bike and took some time to investigate my new find. After a foyer, I entered a large room that was burgeoning with volumes. I was impressed even before I spelunked the narrow book-line hallway leading to a backroom. Calling it a backroom is misleading. This building began life as The Richmond, a theater for silent movies, and the backroom was the cavernous auditorium with orchestra pit and stage. The rows of chairs have been removed and replaced with aisles of shelves running the theater's length down a sloping floor. It had ceased being a movie theater in 1953. It has since been many things until bookseller Greg Gillespie moved in a dozen years ago. Relics and vestiges of every business that previously occupied it still exist between the bookcases and in the corners, including all the pieces of the theater's original Moller pipe organ. It is dark and stained, and dust hangs in the air; it is where books are entombed and the browser is about to uncover Agamemnon’s gold.

The Frankford Arsenal is protected behind stone walls topped with barbed wire entwined with razor wire. It has been an arsenal since President James Madison and was active from the Civil War to the Vietnam War doing research and development of ordnances. The arsenal closed in 1977. There is still a guard house and a guard who asks your intentions, even though the buildings enclosed have been repurposed for small businesses and a high school, the Maritime Academy Charter School. A portion larger than half of the arsenal is being torn down and developed into a mall, but my destination is always building number four. Built in 1820, it first served as a storehouse, then became barracks, and lastly was converted into Officers' Quarters. Today the charming two-storied stucco building, with slate roof and a cast iron veranda from which to watch over a small parade ground, is the home of the Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Company. Dusted and swept and made comfortable, it has more the feel of a private library in an Oxford don’s home. The books lodged in this store are generally high-end. PRB&M opens most Saturdays, but otherwise you need an appointment.

After thirty-one sad years lost in a career working for AT&T,  at last my pension allows me to work at this job I can love, helping out in Eric’s bookstore. I wish I had a bookstore of my own, but Ms Keogh is glad that we can live vicariously as bookstore owners through our volunteering at Classics Books.

Classics Used and Rare Books
Baldwin’s Book Barn
Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Company
Port Richmond Books

Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you. 

Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.