My first experience with the used bookstores of the Ann Arbor area opened up a world to me I had not known before. I was used to searching through garage sales, library sales and the like. That did not prepare me adequately for what I was to find. I walked the steps into David's Bookstore on the corner of State St. and Liberty. The books were stacked even on the stairs and the landing. I made the turn that led me into the actual store and saw the pell-mell stacks of books. The dusty smell of old books permeated the air. The books overflowed their shelves. There were books on top of shelves, stacked on the ground; any conceivable cranny was stuffed with a book. "I could stay here for hours looking for something", I thought. Some of the best books I've found are ones I've found when not looking. Books that I've find while looking through an unsorted stack for a book for English 245, or a Stephen King novel I haven't read. Something catches my eye that draws me in. Sometimes it's the artwork, the title, or just some feeling I get that doesn't seem to come from anywhere conscious thought exists. I've discovered new favorites like H.P. Lovecraft. He makes Stephen King look the Mother Goose. Some things are not to be found in any Barnes & Noble or Borders bookstore. The used bookstores are where the real discovery lies.
Reading a used book is an experience all to itself. I find myself not only reading the words that the book presents, but the former readers as well. I wonder what type of person read this before me. How old were they? Did they enjoy the book when they were done, if they even finished it. Sometimes the pages are dog-eared. That makes it rather easy for the next reader to tell the pace of the former reader. Sometimes the pages are just marked to signify important passages. Why was it that this page was important enough for a person to fold the page for easy acquisition at some later time. It provides a window into the thoughts of the reader before me. The book's spine may be broken as well. This seems to say that the person absorbed the book, opening it to gain even more knowledge from its written words. He or she might have had poor eyesight and had to struggle to make out the words. It may have been read at night after a long day of work. The pages may be stained with coffee or food stains, which seem to denote something the person read at every available moment. It must have interested them enough that they could not put it down to eat. The former reader could have been one of those people constantly on the go. Reading was their only solace, and they would take it wherever they could. The last pages of the book could be stained with tears or sweat. This tells me that the ending must have been especially moving for that person.
Cigarette ashes in the book, or burnmarks might mean that the person was relaxing while reading. It could also mean that the person became anxious or scared because of the book and needed something to calm them down. Is there sand in the pages? Maybe it was a leisure read for some beach bound summer tourist. I have found imprints of things no longer there. I've found perfect impressions of scissors, pens, and other things that I couldn't quite discern.
Some books are annotated by a former reader. Then you know almost exactly what that person felt strongly about. It is a practice that dates back to when the first word was written down. A kind of bookmark called an ęstel was used to mark ancient Old English and Latin manuscripts. It has nothing more than a sharp point to make its scratches. It is interesting to see what someone else made note of almost a millennia ago, even though the scratches are difficult to make out many times. The practice of annotating persists today for good reasons. It often helps in understanding the work. Some are underlined words to look up. Others explain or question a passage. Some are mere reminders to pick up milk and eggs at the store. Sometimes the book was given as a gift and so there is writing to that effect on the first page or in the cover. It gives that person a name, it makes it a little more personal knowing that Eugene Krumpla got this book for his birthday in 1943 from his mother who wished him love. It doesn't provide a face or personality, but it adds just that little more to the story of the book. This is one of the reasons that I like finding really old books at the library. In the old days people wrote their name and address on the card. I might even find someone who lived where one of my friends or I lived, only forty years ago. I remember reading a book on playing rugby that had been last checked out in 1958. I found out that it was the founder of the rugby football club at U of M. I talked to him about the book at the alumni weekend for the rugby team. His name is Burt Sugar, he is the head boxing commentator for Fox Sports. Most of the time a reader of old books never gets to have personal contact with the former readers. They are left with wondering, and that never fully satisfies. Most people would say that it is hopeless to think about such things because you'll never find out, then again most people would say that I'm hopeless.
Some books have fallen apart and some kind soul along the way has attempted to patch or fixed it. I have a copy of The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerovac. It has seen better days. It was completely torn in two between pages 82 and 83. But someone named Wayne Christian cared enough about it to write his name in it and tape its tortured spine. Could it be that to that person, this book was something magical. Something that is destroyed in its love. Countless readings, backpockets, and muddy backpacks turn the once shiny new book into a stained package of papers. I have a Moby Dick that is held together solely by a rubber band across its midsection. There are missing pages sometimes. I read The Birds with the first thirty pages gone. It makes a difference when you are forced to jump into the action like that or miss something if the missing pages fall somewhere in the middle of the book. I had not seen Hitchcock's film of "The Birds" before I read the abreviated novel. I did not know the reason for the birds going crazy. I was thrust into a world with psycho birds, and people cowering in their houses in fear. I didn't have to sit through a long lead in, but it wasn't until I finally watched the movie that the pieces all fell together. I wonder what possessed the former owner to remove those pages. Did they just fall out from faulty binding? Did the reader not like them and throw them away, or did the reader enjoy them so much that he or she felt that they needed to physically take them away with them? A broken book tells a lot about how a book was read, cared for, how long or how many times it was read.
There is an opportunity to find obscure books in used books stores that you can't find in the large chain stores. Some of the best books I've ever read were not off the New York Times bestseller list. An avid reader of these unproven books must take the good with the bad. Finding one great book usually requires sifting through many horrible ones. I might hear something about an old book, or read some reference to it. That way, it's not a truly unknown text. The proliferation of the internet has created a forum for people like me to tell others of their findings, whether good or bad.
Since my first trip to David's, I have returned countless times. I have found other places around Ann Arbor that cater towards the other book crazy folks such as myself. I thought that somehow I had been the only one. My life in the frozen Northlands of Michigan where the library was sparsely populated by farm journals and a handful of the old classics gave me a taste and a hunger for what I would later find. Finding a text for someone (or myself) that has been out of print for fifty years makes me feel like I've really discovered something.