[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
Dead he lay among his books. The peace of God was in his looks. —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ultima Thule*
Longfellow’s words speak to the way this project was born. It is our belief that used bookstores are enchanted places where stories reverberate between the authors and the many hands that have held them, human relationships accumulate alongside profit and loss, and the gods connect the physical person with their literary other. Our expectation was to visit various locations to discuss this notion with used bookstores’ staff and owners in search of tangible proof of our idealistic ideas. Our interviews produced weary dialogue about how used bookstores were pushing back against the convenience tentacles of Amazon and the sterilized spirit of chain bookstores. That wasn’t the story we wanted to tell. Consequently we became skulking gumshoes, browsing for clues about how used bookstores uphold or subvert normative ways of interacting with print media and history. Ultimately, we emerged with a more nuanced view of where used bookstores lie on the pendulum swing between core and margin of culture and knowledge.
While authors like Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn have brought the everyday voices of history into the realm of publication, the traditional canon of dead, white European male authors lives on in prominent shelf space. A worthy writer like Dalton Trumbo, a survivor of McCarthy’s blacklisting who went on to deliver urgent anti-war sentiments in Johnny Got His Gun, is relegated to the back of a shelf. So is Frank Tuohy, an English author whose writing came from the idea that “the sense of displacement, loss, anxiety which happens to people derives from the world outside them.” Both of their works hide behind the well-known and respected works of Tolstoy. Trumbo and Tuohy were certainly influenced by Tolstoy’s literary genius and fervent ideas on non-violent resistance, as were Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who were positioned beside rather than behind Tolstoy.
The physical layouts of the stores, as well as the conditions of the books themselves, prompted us to think about which ideas are considered important, and what ways of interacting with those ideas are encouraged. On the top shelf of one particularly immaculate store was an 1892 edition of the U.S. Constitution. Reaching up, hoping to find century-old thoughts penciled in the margins, we were instead met with dust dropping into our gaping mouths. We found several family-sized Bibles in pristine condition. Back pages designed specifically for recording generations of important personal events were as crisp and clean as the day they came off the press. Here were texts that many consider as central to our culture, yet they bore no evidence of being cherished or even read.
In our browsing, we expected to find notations in the margins. We imagined that used bookstores present books as living documents where people interact with the ideas they read. We were excited to find the pen-and-ink voices of everyday folk side-by-side with the font of legitimacy. Yet we heard repeatedly that used bookstores rarely accept marked up volumes: people don’t want to buy books that are tattooed with a previous reader’s relationship to it. Even so, we were able to find unpublished stories from the past at the edges of several stores’ collections. Rummaging through early nineteenth-century postcards created stories in our heads of the people who’d written them from Kentucky, from Pennsylvania, from Utah, connecting over the miles and through the years. A family photograph fluttered out from between the pages of a yearbook from Culver Military Academy’s Class of 1924, whispering an invitation to imagine the people whose histories had somehow made their way to this dusty shelf.
Not only did used bookstores bring us into contact with the buried stories of others, they made us archaeologists of ourselves. We came across reminders of our own histories. The Chicago Tribune Magazine’s story of Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit reminded Erin of her grandmother who treasured him, and moved Erin to try to find out whether her grandmother had made it downtown to one of his masses. The vision of Heidi by Johanna Spyri and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series by Betty MacDonald brought to Donna the sweet warmth of hot chocolate on cold winter days of her childhood. Just as exploring the items boxed up in a relative’s attic becomes a conversation with ancestors and a romp through memory, our diggings through the corners of used bookstores connected us with forgotten parts of ourselves.
One browser, a self-proclaimed conservative retiree who had lived in the area his entire life told us about books that “jumped out at him rather serendipitously,” a conversation that demonstrated another way used book stores disrupt the recycling of the same voices, serving as pseudo-temples where chance turns up the volume of her messages. This customer repeatedly found himself thumbing through books about people who had dropped out of society to live in remote areas of the world with the “pygmies” of Africa, or the “aborigines of Australia” for a “supposedly better or rewarding life.” He described an unrealized inner hunger calling from the worn bindings. It seemed like he was learning just as much about himself and his hidden interests as he was about the adventurers. Was his unrealized inner hunger wanderlust? Were his wanderings within his own constricted borders and over the roads of back and top shelves actually a safe and controlled travel to edges?
Our time spent in used bookstores spurred us to question who dictates the experiences and ideas viewed as important, and who decides how they are disseminated? In these decisions, what modes of interaction with print media, history, and people are then relegated to a distant or mysterious land? Certain forms and sources of knowledge are privileged, and for us, this privileging is, as Tuohy says, “a painful bite down on the rotten tooth of life.” However, our search for the connection between knowledge and serendipity was supported in the discovery that many used bookstores do contain the voices of everyday people, whether in the margins of books, in memories stirred, or in conversation. If the brick and mortar structures are approached as museums turned upside-down, then they become places where the past dances with the imagination and our own neglected histories stir from beyond the borders. ◊
*A first edition of Longfellow’s Ultima Thule was one of our finds. In medieval Europe, this name was given to the mysterious lands thought to exist at the far north of the known world.