Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The perfect bookstore

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The Next Whole Earth Catalog

I’ve written before about the end of browsing, but for me, it took place a little sooner than I expected. In the old days, I’d spend hours roaming through used bookstores like The Strand in New York and Open Books here in Chicago, keeping an eye out both for books I was hoping to find and for a few unexpected discoveries, but now, with a baby in tow, it’s hard to get into the timeless, transcendent state required for a deep dive into the perfect bookstore. My definition of the perfect used bookstore is a simple one: it needs to have an enormous inventory of interesting books, low prices, and the possibility of exciting serendipity. You shouldn’t know precisely what to expect going in, and if you do find the book you’re looking for, you feel a surge of delight in the same region of the brain that responds to varied, unpredictable pleasures. I thought I’d left this kind of browsing behind, but recently, I discovered a way to do it from the comfort of my own home. And although it really only works for the kind of idiosyncratic, obsessive browsing that I prefer, I’m sharing it here, in hopes that someone else will find it useful.

The first step is to get your hands on a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog. I’ve sung the praises of the Catalog here more than once, but even more than “Google in book form,” as Steve Jobs memorably called it, it’s a portable simulation of the perfect bookstore. It’s usually associated with the 1970s hippie culture of Berkeley and the rest of the East Bay, and not without reason: the older editions include several pages of resources on how to build your own geodesic dome. Really, though, it’s a book for curious readers of every persuasion. Every page is bursting with fascinating, often unfairly neglected or forgotten books on every subject imaginable: literature, art, science, history, philosophy, religion, design, and much more, along with the more famous sections on homesteading, environmentalism, and sustainable living. If you’re the kind of browser I have in mind, it’s the ultimate book of daydreams. (Any edition will work for our purposes, but if you can only get one, I’d recommend The Next Whole Earth Catalog, which gives you the greatest poundage per dollar and breathes the right air of intelligent funkiness.)

Better World Books

Next, you need to head over to Better World Books, my favorite online used bookstore. More specifically, you want to check out their Bargain Bin, which allows you to buy four or more used books at a discount, usually translating to something like four books for $12. (You’ll also want to get on their email list for flash sales and special events, which can lead to even better deals.) Then you settle down in a comfortable chair—or maybe a bed—with The Whole Earth Catalog and start to browse, looking for a book or subject that catches your eye. Maybe it’s Form, Function and Design by Paul Jacques Grillo, or The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides, or Soil and Civilization by Edward S. Hyams, or the works of R. Buckminster Fuller. Then you check the Bargain Bin to see if the book you want is there. In my experience, four times out of ten, you’ll find it, which may not seem like a great percentage if you absolutely need a copy, but it’s ideal for browsing. Even better, since you need four or more books to qualify for the deal, you’ve got to keep going, and it’s often when you’re looking for one last book to fill out your order—and end up exploring unexpected nooks of the Catalog or your own imagination—that you make the most serendipitous discoveries.

Best of all, the Catalog is only a starting point. When you’re leafing through it, you may end up on the page devoted to computers and remember, as I did recently, that you’d been meaning to pick up a copy of the legendary handbook The C Programming Language—and bam, there it is for four dollars. Each page is likely to remind you of other books that you’ve long wanted to explore, and if you follow that train of thought wherever it leads, you’ll find yourself in some unexpected places. And it’s the peculiar constraint of the Bargain Bin, in which you might find the book you want for a wonderful price, that makes the exercise so rewarding, and so much like the classic used bookstore experience. (If you don’t have a copy of the Catalog, you can also use other books with big annotated bibliographies to spark your search: if you’re interested in the sciences, for instance, the one in Gödel, Escher, Bach is particularly good.) When you’re done, you’ll have a package on the way, and part of the fun of Better World Books, as opposed to Amazon Prime, is that you’re never quite sure when it will arrive, which gives each mail delivery an extra frisson of interest. I find myself doing this every month or two, whenever Better World Books has a sale, and I love it: it’s a sustaining shot of happiness for only ten dollars a pop. And my only problem is that I’m running out of shelf space.

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2013 at 8:39 am

2 Responses

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  1. Having two (and a third on the way) kids in tow, my days of used bookstore browsing are long behind me. In fact, a treat for me is going to the bookstore alone.
    I did not know about Better World Books. Thanks for bring it to my attention.

    Christopher Lee Deards

    July 18, 2013 at 9:02 am

  2. You’re welcome! It’s a great site—I almost always have a package or two from them en route.


    July 18, 2013 at 9:23 pm

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