“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
― Jorge Luis Borges
We introverts owe a fair share of gratitude to Susan Cain for her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
Certainly there were people researching and writing about the introvert-extrovert spectrum before she published her book in 2012. But Cain’s hard work and accessible prose brought together a comprehensive and clear collection of available research, experience, and analysis that benefited people all over the globe. If you haven’t read it, you should, no matter where you consider yourself on the spectrum. It will change the way you see yourself and the world: as a parent, partner, spouse, coworker, manager, and human resources professional.
One major takeaway from her book is that extroverts generally gain energy from being in larger social situations, while introverts generally expend energy in those same situations. Introverts need downtime to recharge, often by being on their own or with a smaller group of close friends.
That’s been my experience as an INTJ (in Myers-Briggs parlance). When I’m not with my close friends, one of the next-best recharging stations is a secondhand bookstore.
Unfortunately, standing in Powell’s City of Books last week, it was no longer giving me the charge I needed. It’s not that I don’t love Powell’s. I find what I’m looking for almost every time I’m there. I definitely find things I had no idea I was looking for every time I’m there. But Powell’s has become a very busy place, the Times Square of Portland. Around the holidays, it’s wonderful crazy without the ice-skating.
In the late 80’s, I would spend an entire afternoon there. The aisles were just slightly wider than a person, and you had most of them to yourself. The old, wooden shelves angled away slightly as they rose toward the ceiling and sealed you into a dark, quiet valley. During the winter, buckets hung from the ceiling here and there to catch a leak before it hit the floor or shelves. There was a steady, slow, and comforting sound. Drip. Silence. Drip.
The shelves were stocked with plenty of well-turned old hardbacks and yellowed paperbacks. I would pick one carefully off the shelf in the literature room, and slide down to the floor to sit with my back against the books.
Studying the condition of each book was as much an adventure as sampling the contents. The dark patina on hardbacks where the cover had been held for hours, as it was read over and over again, told about the quality of the writing or love of the subject. A handwritten name declaring ownership suggested a personal connection to the work, or sometimes it was a brief inscription when the book was given as a gift, often saying, “I hope you enjoy as much as I did.”
What I loved most about turning those old books over in my hands was seeing the darkened edges of the pages, where fingers had held the corners and turned them over and over. And I would sit and wonder about all the people who had held that book and enjoyed it. On rare occasions an old envelope or a handwritten note once used as a bookmark would appear.
As I sat there, rarely would anyone interrupt me. Often people would walk around in the next aisle if they needed to go by. Powell’s is nothing like it was, which is fine, but I do miss those quieter days.
But standing last week in the Purple Room as people buzzed back and forth between the shelves and me, I saw Susan Cain’s book facing out on the end display, and remembered her insights on recharging. Then I realized it was time to head to Wallace Books in Sellwood.
Wallace Books, Sellwood District, Portland
“I am very happy in second-hand bookshops;
would a gardener not be happy in a garden?”
― Hilary Mantel
Wallace Books is an old bungalow style home on SE Milwaukie with every room, including the garage, absolutely stuffed with books. From the moment you enter the living room, there is an enveloping quiet and calm. A desk and computer-register sits in front of the fireplace on the right. Teetering stacks of books sit on the desk and newer used books are displayed on the tables, on the window sills, and in the built-in buffet. Boxes of books on the floor await inventory, pricing, and a place to sit on a shelf.
As you walk through the house, old books are stacked on shelves in every which way: books in front of books, on top of books, bending shelves beyond what appears to be the limits of physics. But they are organized exceptionally well into sections. If you ask Julie about a particular title or topic, she takes you right to it.
The air smells lightly of paper, glue, and fireplace soot. Sometimes in the winter the furnace doesn’t work and you can see your breath, so I bring my heavy winter coat so I can stay as long as I can hold out until my fingers go cold. In the summer the rooms are usually cool and slightly damp. There is one coveted armchair in the hallway towards the back that is often empty and waiting for a soul to sit and read, just outside the former bedroom that holds the science fiction and mystery sections.
There are many wonderful secondhand bookstores in the world, but Wallace is one of my favorites. It reminds me of the bookstores I would visit when I traveled for work to Washington, Idaho, and Montana in puddle jumpers and was away from home for full weeks in small towns.
On those trips it was common to work a long day, then go out to dinner with business associates, go to bed late, and then get up and do it again. After a few days of that routine I would run out energy, and duck out of evening plans and set out looking for bookstores. Many of them were small secondhand bookshops like Wallace.
I searched the shelves for interesting new titles, and what would inevitably happen is that I would notice the books I already had at home. Seeing them on the shelves were like voices from home: I read that one in the living room in front of the fire, this one over Christmas break, I read that one in High School, and that one Mom recommended.
I began to remember the conversations I had with friends and family about those books, and the characters and stories floated up through the distance to my consciousness, and suddenly I was back at home in my own living room library, and I felt connected. And so it became a centering ritual, to be closer to home as much as to recharge.
Going into a good bookstore is not just walking among the shelves of words. It’s being in the presence of the thousands of souls who have written those words, and with those who have come to those collections for advice, comfort, knowledge, and inspiration.
Tacoma Book Center, Tacoma, Washington
“One of the great diseases of this age is the multitude of books that doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought into the world.”
― Barnaby Rich, circa 1600
Another great secondhand bookstore is Tacoma Book Center, in Tacoma, Washington.
They have a huge space and incredible selection of secondhand books, far greater than our own beloved Powell’s because used books are all they do. They have the warehouse you can walk through, and another that they use for storage and running their online business.
A couple of years ago I was searching for out-of-print books by Howard Pease, a young adult fiction author my dad read in his youth, and they were the only bookstore in the United States that had a selection of any reasonable size. I picked up many, beautiful hardbacks in amazing condition.
Location, as it turns out, is not everything. The store and warehouse are right down near the Tacoma Dome, in a district that looks as if it were abandoned the same decade as the buggy whip. But it is well worth the drive; the employees are absolutely fabulous and knowledgable beyond measure.
Book Buyers, Mountain View, California
In the new age, we get instant on-line ratings and reviews from thousands of complete strangers, and it is a great way to get suggestions on books to read. I use the system constantly. It’s technological magic that enhances everything we do, every purchase we make, every bit of research we want to complete.
However, I do miss the magic of the old way: getting recommendations from a friend, browsing the new releases table in a small bookstore, or having a great publishing house with editors that produced a steady stream of incredible new titles (like Penguin) or wonderful classics (like The Modern Library). Mostly, I miss the number of old titles that were available, which is why I stay on the lookout for places that have still have the old magic.
Here’s one that does: Book Buyers on Castro Street in Mountain View, California. I grew up in the area, so I travel back frequently to spend time with family and friends.
Book Buyers has a wide selection of out-of-print books, and a formidable inventory of titles at their main warehouse where they run the online side of the business. I’ve found a great selection of used hardcover editions of The Modern Library Classics at the Mountain View store.
They don’t try to market the new titles that keep pouring out each week. They leave that to another independent bookstore right next door on Castro Street (believe it or not), Books Inc., which is also fabulous in its own right (with a café in the loft above).
Back to the magic of Book Buyers: A few weeks ago, I was looking for several titles that fell under the philosophy genre. A helpful employee saw me struggling in the wrong section near the front of the store, and directed me to a room near the back that I hadn’t seen before. She pointed out the proper shelves and left me to search. The bookshelves went from floor to ceiling and were full and neatly stocked.
I found the titles I was looking for fairly quickly, and kept scanning for others that might be interesting. I then began to hear a soft wheezing. I looked around the room. All four walls were completely filled with books, and there was no one. Then I realized the wheezing was my own breathing.
In small rooms filled with books, there are effectively no acoustics. Books absorb sound, almost as if they are demanding quiet and deep thought. Perhaps that’s why libraries became such quiet-mandated spaces. It was a great moment of bookstore magic for me, just to sit and listen to absolutely nothing but the sound of my own breathing and read. Used bookstores are wonderful, strange places. If magic remains anywhere, it is within those walls of words.
[A sad update: as of late 2016, Book Buyers is no more. My understanding is that the increasing rent on Castro in downtown Mtn. View helped with their demise.]
There are many more I could recommend, but I’ve got jump back into some other work. If you find some to recommend, please let me know!
“Books may well be the only true magic.”
― Alice Hoffman