An Ode to Used Book Sales

Define heaven on earth — those fleeting places where we can brush up against deep, unadulterated happiness in its purest form.

They’re different for everyone, perhaps. Mine come in many forms. One of them is used book sales.

It seems an unlikely place to induce an experience of heaven — a sale of old books, volumes abandoned and unwanted, sometimes folded or stained, always worn.

They’re held in unassuming places — pavilions in small-town parks, in entry lobbies, under fold-up canopies. In libraries — often libraries: basements of libraries, spare rooms of libraries, conference rooms, entryways. Sometimes there are shelves and always there are tables, and there are books — oh, there are books.

If you’ve ever loved books, loved ideas, you can perhaps understand why one would deem this heaven.

Books upon books upon books — spread out spine-up wherever possible, but overflowing: stacked on top of each other, left in piles on the ends of tables, filling boxes anywhere people won’t trip on them. It’s an unruly assortment — sometimes sorted, sometimes not. It’s heaven. When I walk in I’m onset by a sort of sudden panic, akin a deep hunger . . . or like the feeling a desperate thirst rising in me when I’m dry and suddenly see water. I want to go through them all now, at once, want to absorb the ideas they carry within, taste the richness of the words. The thought that someone else might find and claim one of the treasures before I do pains me.

For you see, when you walk into a used book sale, you open yourself up to be changed.

They’re windows to the past — you find books there that you can’t find elsewhere. Books gone out of circulation and out of style, but whose content is still as fresh and good as it was the day it was first printed — only forgotten because people think you need to move on to newer and better things, don’t realize that sometimes what’s already come is good enough.

Pick up one of the old books. Smell it — the distinctive scent of old ink and glue and paper. Breathe that in. Hold the smell in your lungs. Put it in your bag because it smells good, because it looks interesting.

Sometimes I find copies of books I used to check out of the library system, removed from the collection now (because of lack of circulation?). I find myself compelled to take those — if nothing else, for the sake of the memories.

I make it a habit to pick up books at sales compulsively. It’s five dollars for a bag — whyever not fill a bag; take two? They’ll litter my room for a while, but I can always get rid of them again — although I know I never do. I’d rather stack boxes upon boxes, run out of space to walk, than part with a book I might someday love. I don’t read them all, but I like having them near. Sometimes the title and the dust jacket provides me with enough value — opens my mind to the sorts of ideas I associate with those words, causes me to speculate on what might exist.

I take anything that catches my eye. Sometimes I swear a book speaks to me as I move through the room. There have been volumes I’ve felt distinctly drawn to, bought, read, found profound.

I work through table after table, arms laden down first with loose books, and then when I can’t carry them all anymore, with bags — so heavy they leave deep-cut red marks on my skin.

They’re marked on my calendar like holidays, but they don’t need to be there, because I’ll remember the date. Missing them is like sacrilege, but between work and being on the road, it happens too often. It always hurts, whereas walking into one makes me breathe a deep sign of satisfaction.

When I stand in the middle of a used book sale, I’m standing in the middle of thousands of volumes containing the thoughts and souls of a thousand minds. I’m standing in the midst of thousands of worldviews, thousands of opinions, thousands of ideas, thousands of human evolutions.

You run into ideas you didn’t know existed.

If you like them, you pick them up, take them home, give them a place to stay for a while. When you’re sorting through your collection looking for something good to read you get surprised all over again.

Now do you perhaps begin to see how it’s heaven? These sales, they’re compendiums of things sacred, and they’re mine for the taking.

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