In a good used bookstore, you can walk but may be walking sideways. Shuffling. Moving your feet carefully to avoid kicking over the stacks and then readying your hands in the grab-a-book-that-is-falling position.
That’s Dauphine Street Books in New Orleans, which we visited recently. The store was as small and narrow as a New York chocolate shop but instead of floor-to-ceiling chocolate there were books. Confections of a different sort.
In a good used bookstore, books are everywhere and the spaces between everywhere.
Dauphine Books was quiet. Quieter than a library. Just slightly noisier than Napoleon's tomb.
That’s a good quiet. A thinking quiet. A peaceful quiet.
Used bookstores have their own smell. Used books smell differently than new books but neither smells bad. Used books reek of dust, but pleasant dust. Used books smell of houses they once lived in and people who once read them.
Books absorb the affection of their owners. We like books. They are our friends.
Time stops in a used bookstore. Dauphine felt like it could have been 150 years old but it probably felt 150 years old the day it opened.
I couldn’t tell how old the owner was. He could have 40, 60 or as old as the Mississippi. Time in a used book store stops for the bookseller too.
I assume the bookseller was the owner. Who can pay somebody to look after a used bookstore? Even if you could afford it, those books are his babies. He bought them, he read them, or didn’t read them, and has opinions about them whether he read them or not.
“What are some of your favorite authors right now?” I asked.
It was a dumb question but sometimes you have to ask a dumb question to get to a smart question.
“That’s a tough one,” said the owner, who was as thin and singular as a character in a Dickens novel. If his name had been Mr. Pumblechook, it would not have been surprising.
“For grit lit, I like Larry Brown,” he said. “I like Ann Patchett, Timothy Egan and Sheila Bosworth, too.”
“Grit lit”? That’s a new one. Grit lit was like chick lit without the tears and the sympathetic female characters.
I told him I had grandchildren. I tell everybody I have grandchildren. I tell them whether they are interested or not.
This time I had a reason. Grandparents are suckers. They buy things for their grandchildren. Dumb things and then things like books.
I started stacking books up by the cash register. I had used bookstore fever fueled by beautiful $5 and $10 hardbacks. I was spending money but the books were so cheap, I felt like I was making money.
Buying books are like getting tattoos. It can be addicting. One book leads to another. Pretty soon, you’re wall-to-wall.
I chose a large copy of “Make Way for Ducklings” by Robert McCloskey, “Babar and the Ghost” by Jean de Brunhoff, “Little Bear’s Visit” and “Swine Lake,” both illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and “Higglety Pigglety,” which Sendak also wrote; “Woman in the Dark” by Dashiell Hammett, the Dust Bowl tale “The Worst Hard Time,” by Timothy Egan; “Dirty Work” by Larry Brown, “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett, “Skinny Dip” by the great Florida mystery writer Carl Hiaasen, “Roseanna” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and “Almost Innocent” by Sheila Bosworth.
Twelve books. I had to have everyone one of them. If the books had been tattoos, I would have been covered with ink.
Seventy bucks. (He threw in “Skinny Dip” for free.)
I know people love their Kindles. Easy, portable and still a book without the weight.
However, there is nothing like a book. An old book. A used book. A read book, A loved one.
The next time you’re in a used bookstore, you know you’re in the right place when you have trouble walking. When time stops. When it’s so peaceful, you can hear yourself think.