Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The joys of thrift-store browsing

with 9 comments

If browsing in a bookshop is, as I’ve often said before, a kind of dreaming, sifting through the books in a large thrift store is like the lowest dream level in Inception, where the dreams of countless others end up jumbled together without rhyme or reason. (You can also end up stranded there for longer than you expect.) I’m always a little thrilled whenever I wander into a thrift store for the first time, never knowing if I’ll find the sad little collection of ’70s paperbacks at your average Goodwill or an awe-inspiring labyrinth like the one in the late, lamented Ark in Chicago. Browsing in used bookstores always involves some measure of serendipity, an openness to happy accidents, and a thrift store, in particular, is the opposite of a nicely curated experience like that at Barnes & Noble or Amazon: usually frustrating, but sometimes enlightening, both in terms of the specific books you find and for the art of browsing in general. And every now and then, you’ll find something that makes you want to shout: Eureka!

One fascinating thing about thrift stores is that you’ll often see patterns in the books on hand, titles that repeatedly appear there and nowhere else, giving you an uncanny glimpse into what our culture’s detritus will look like after we’re gone. Some are easy to understand: Reader’s Digest condensed book collections, obsolete technical manuals or Dummies books, the various editions of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Then there the novels that large numbers of people bought and then decided, for one reason or another, to give away. Some are the difficult books that followed a big bestseller: I’ll almost always see a copy or two of A Maggot by John Fowles, for instance. Other books that seem to crop up frequently in thrift stores: Bag of Bones by Stephen King, The Bull From the Sea by Marie Renault, Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. And there’s often an entire shelf’s worth of The Da Vinci Code, neatly lined up like the matching volumes of an exceptionally uninformative encyclopedia.

And then there are the unexpected treasures. Even a recent trip to Village Discount Outlet, by far the most chaotic of all Chicago thrift stores, resulted in a vintage copy of The Sesame Street Dictionary, which I’d nostalgically been meaning to pick up for a long time. Before the Ark closed, during a strange acquisitive phase, I picked up two shopping bags of old first editions, including a pristine hardcover copy of The Pillars of the Earth. (Originally, I’d intended to buy these first editions for a few dollars each, then resell them for a profit online. In the end, the math didn’t quite work out, so they’re still in a box at the back of my closet, awaiting their moment of glory.) I even once found a signed and inscribed copy of George S. Kaufman and His Friends by the legendary author and agent Scott Meredith—with a twenty-dollar bill inside. For a long time, this ranked as my most satisfying catch. A few weeks ago, however, I managed to top it.

One of the small pleasures of my recent move to Oak Park is that I’m now just a two-minute walk from a branch of the Brown Elephant, one of the Chicago area’s nicest thrift stores. I browse there idly from time to time, and last month, a few days before Thanksgiving, on a shelf near the front of the store, I saw a prize I’d been hoping to find for most of my life: the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, in two volumes, complete with magnifying glass. The price? Ninety dollars. But I also knew that the store would be slashing all prices in half on Black Friday. So I waited. And waited. And when the morning after Thanksgiving came, I dropped my parents off at the airport, drove home, lined up in front of the store with the other shoppers, and ran straight for the front shelf when the doors opened. The dictionary was there. Clutching it in my arms, I headed for the cash register, probably elbowing a few old ladies out of the way in the process. I’m looking at it now as I write this. Eureka.

9 Responses

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  1. I could spend happy hours in a store with old books. Bliss.


    December 21, 2011 at 11:57 am

  2. Same here. I’m convinced that heaven is just a really good used bookstore.


    December 21, 2011 at 12:08 pm

  3. Is that second photo your subtle way of recommending Janet Evanovich?

    Eric Simons (@ericsimons)

    December 21, 2011 at 12:40 pm

  4. I think the universe itself is subtly recommending Janet Evanovich.


    December 21, 2011 at 12:42 pm

  5. Perfection – my favorite place to shop for books. I think it’s because of the smell the books have when you take them home and cuddle them. :)


    December 21, 2011 at 1:12 pm

  6. @Cassie: Agreed. (I’ve been known to sniff the pages of old books.)


    December 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm

  7. There is a small chain of used book stores in NC called Edward McKay, and it is simply paradise. It has everything from contemporary to rare classics. I have walked out of the store with my arms full many times.

    Ashley Shae Hall

    December 21, 2011 at 2:14 pm

  8. I love thrift stores! They always have something interesting and every item has a story. I’m drawn to the book section like a magnet! Most of the time, I prefer a used book to a new one. Especially, if it has an inscription. :-)

    C.B. Wentworth

    December 21, 2011 at 4:30 pm

  9. @Ashley: That sounds great! I’ll definitely need to check it out the next time I’m in the area…

    @C.B.: Agreed. I may do an entire blog post soon on inscriptions in used books.


    December 21, 2011 at 10:01 pm

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