Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Where Are All the Books?

When I think of Miami, I see flashing neon signs streaked across the hot night air, of crowded beaches choked with tourists, houses in offensive shades of pink and horrid lime green, and people in plastic flip-flops with bleached hair appropriately tousled by the ocean breeze. Humid, sticky, exorbitant, shallow.
I don't like Miami. Or, to put it better, I know that it isn't where I want to live for the rest of my life. It can be beautiful, and I do love the ocean (even though I never go, I just look at it from my balcony). The sense of wild, uninhibited freedom there is, at times, liberating. And being one of those people that's shivering and wearing a coat when it's 75°, I like the weather. 

When I moved here, I had just emerged from a nearly 700 mile walkabout inspired by Kerouac and Christopher McCandless, freshly inspired and idealistic, my worldview forever changed (more on that in another post). And before that, I had left behind Charlottesville, my lost intellectual utopia, where I lived next-door to two bookshops with dozens more within a 20 minute walk.
Coming to Florida was a bit of a culture shock.

In Miami, I immediately set out to answer that all-important question I ask of every new place I find myself in: Where are all the books? 

Not a book in sight

 The question went disturbingly unanswered for a few months. I found a chain bookstore at the mall, but they had a limited selection, and I was put off by the fast paced, mainstream atmosphere. There weren't any chairs to sit and read, the bookshop clerks were talking about watching trashy reality shows, and if you stayed longer than half an hour they slipped you suspicious glares.
I looked up used bookshops online, and embarked on a 30 min. drive to a beaten down bookstore attended to by one elderly woman who looked as if she had stepped out of the 1950's. This was more like it! 
Or not. A cursory glance around the place told me that it was packed with cheap romance novels. A deeper investigation turned up a single shelf of "Classics," containing about 20 books. I purchased an overpriced copy of Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge," and the woman gave me a funny look. "Why would you buy this?" she asked. "School, I guess."
"No," I said. "Hardy is one of my favorite authors."
She looked at me as if I had just informed her that one of my favorite pastimes was hammering splinters into my fingernails.

Further searches turned up much of the same, and at one point, I had actually read all the books that I owned. For any reader / book collector, you know how unthinkable this is.

In horror, I considered the possibility that there just aren't any places to buy books in Miami. Of course, there is always the option of buying online, but that can't compare to sifting through used bookshops, never sure what you'll come across, finding books that you've never heard of but suddenly can't imagine your library being without. 

What to do?

Now, after living in Miami for about four years, I'm intimately acquainted with all of the places that books are hiding. It took some searching, but I found them.

A particularly good day of book-buying!

Because of this, I think that almost anyone can find books, and lots of them, almost anywhere.

1. Abandon any and all qualms against thrift stores and secondhand shops. They are probably the best places to buy books in the absence of used bookshops, and most of the time, they're a lot cheaper, too. Many used bookshops sell their selections for half of the cover price, which is normally about $5 - $15. Thrift shops sells books for about $1 - $4. Besides being ridiculously low priced, stores like these aren't likely to know anything about the books that they're selling, so if there's a treasure hidden in the shelves, they aren't going to know it. I've found a 1st edition Tolkien, Toni Morrison, and a signed 1st edition of Nabokov's "Ada" in thrift shops, among many others.
I really started finding a ton of books after I had located every Goodwill, Salvation Army, and secondhand shop in the area. And often, your money is going toward a good cause, too.

2. Go to the library. Visit multiple libraries, especially your county's main library. Nearly every library has a discards section, where they sell discarded library copies or donations. Some of these discard sections are so large that they're the size of bookstores, and some libraries call them ongoing "Book Sales." If you can believe it, libraries normally sell books for even less than thrift stores, from $0.10 - $3.

3. Of course, find your local independent and used bookshops. And befriend the people behind the counter! I have found that people working in small, more obscure bookshops are voracious readers themselves 99% of the time. I've also had a lot of them give me generous "best customer" discounts, and when I gave one of them my phone number, he called me with books he thought I'd like and offered to hold them for me until my next visit.

4. Sometimes, I post on Craigslist that I will take unwanted books off people's hands. I always get a ton of replies, which I hadn't expected when I put up my first ad. Likewise, people sometimes post books for sale on Craigslist. Posts like "Tons of Books!" or "Hundreds of Boxes of Books, Must Go," are the best! 
When planning to go to someone's home for books, I always ask them for a snapshot of their shelves and what types of books they have. Hopefully, they send a photo with visible titles, so that I can get an idea of the selection. Asking them what books they have generally isn't much good. They say "Literature" and they mean Reader's Digest. They say "vintage" and mean 1980's. But if they say "No clue, they were my grandmother's," then I always, always go. 
I also bring my boyfriend along with me on such visits. I'd like to think that everyone on the internet is an honest person, but Craigslist isn't exactly the most legitimate place of business.

5. I made a sort of deal with myself that I would purchase one book online every two weeks. I don't like buying books online, and this post is kind of about finding books without using the internet, but for new releases or books on specific topics, it's often the best way to get something that used bookshops aren't likely to have. I highly recommend AbeBooks for this.

 6. Find book friends, swap books, and ask where they find things to read. I'll admit, I haven't accomplished this here, but I had lots of fellow reading friends back in Virginia, and was introduced to many of my favorite books and authors through them.

7. Here I'm going to recommend something that isn't typical of my world of books in any way. First of all, it's on the internet, and secondly, it involves eBooks (in other words, files disguised as books). However, NetGalley.com is one of my favorite websites. It offers "copies" of upcoming releases available through publishers for you to review. They have a great selection and I'm always reading something that I received through them.